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Beyond Baked Beans: It’s Hard to Define New England Cuisine

It’s hard to know, here in the 21st century, what New England cuisine consists of. We are far removed from baked beans and cranberry relish. Sushi is universally available.

Even that relatively venerable voice of the region, Yankee Magazine, seems at pains to define it. In a new cookbook, Yankee Magazine’s Lost and Vintage Recipes, the operating definition of New England cooking can be summed up broadly as “Whatever someone in New England has ever eaten more than once.”

To be fair, even a magazine as embedded in the soil as Yankee is in New England’s is a simulacrum. If someone sends in a tasty meatloaf recipe from New Mexico that her grandfather cooked in Ware, Mass., does that make meatloaf a signature regional dish? New England is an idea of a place for someone like Carol Learned, of Albuquerque, N.M., as much as it is an actual place for someone born and raised in Canaan.

So leafing through Lost and Vintage Recipes is to consider how our ideas of food have changed. There are no recipes for baked beans, finnan haddie, boiled dinner, Rhode Island clam chowder, brown bread or Boston creme pie. But on consecutive pages in the middle of the book are recipes for, in order, Chicken Cacciatore, Chicken a la King, Turkey Tetrazzini and Beef Stroganoff. Yikes. We used to eat that stuff? At least Yankee took the trouble to retest and improve these recipes, so the Chicken a la King isn’t drowned in a pale sauce with the consistency of glue.

Actually, the book’s mix of the authentic and the ersatz is kind of refreshing. The culinary establishment’s slavish attention to authenticity is wearing thin. If someone wants to cook Turkey Tetrazzini, no doubt he can use local ingredients and pretend that Tetrazzini is a village in Apulia, rather than a dish invented in San Francisco to honor a famous operatic soprano.

Amy Traverso, Yankee’s senior lifestyle editor, notes that it isn’t always easy to tell what dishes have a deep grounding in the region’s rocky soil. She tells two stories about a recipe for “cheese woodchuck,” a variation on Welsh rarebit. In one, wheels of wax-coated cheese floated from a 1710 shipwreck to Maine’s Peaks Island, where cooks struggled to use the vast supply they’d been gifted by the sea. The other version of the dish dated from the 1930s.

“So is this a pre-Revolutionary treat or a 20th-century invention?” Traverso writes. “It’s delicious either way.”

There are other dishes that are more clearly steeped in the region’s history. Quahog fritters, anadama bread, Parker House rolls, cider doughnuts, baked scallops, red flannel hash, lobster pie, johnny cakes, Grape-Nut pudding and apple dumplings, among others, are as New England as anything else you could name.

And a few recipes contain genuine surprises. For example, I had no idea that graham crackers were invented in Northampton, Mass., by Sylvester Graham, a 19th-century health reformer. Traverso also parses the fine distinctions between a cobbler (a fruit dessert topped with a biscuit crust and baked in a pan), a slump (similar to a cobbler, but baked in a skillet) and a buckle (a cake into which fruit sinks during cooking).

If I have any overall criticism it’s that Lost and Vintage Recipes makes too little effort to explain the history of a dish, in part because the book’s organizing principles are so expansive as to make those explanations unnecessary. I also wondered why there were so few recipes for preserves, long a staple of New England kitchens for sustenance during long winters.

Oh, and paging through this book made me long for fall, when the chilly air will make me want to cook chicken pie and bake up some potato doughnuts.

Since I brought it up, here’s Carol Learned’s recipe for “Paper Bag” Meatloaf. Although the original recipe calls for wrapping the loaf in a brown paper bag, parchment paper works better.

“Paper Bag” Meatloaf

1 1/4 pounds ground beef

3/4 pound ground pork

2 large eggs

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

1 medium green pepper, finely chopped

1 cup plain bread crumbs

3 tablespoons ketchup

1 tablespoon mustard

1 3/4 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put all the ingredients in a big bowl and use clean hands to mix them together.

Lay a piece of parchment paper roughly 18 inches by 13 inches into a rimmed baking sheet. Turn the meatloaf mix onto the paper and shape it into a rounded loat. Wrap it in the parchment, folding the ends underneath.

Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and bake about 90 minutes, until the loaf reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Let cool 10 minutes, remove parchment and serve.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com.