Evolution of a Dish
By: Katherine Perry
The name “New England Boiled Dinner” proclaims its humility a little too proudly to be entirely authentic. It says, “Here in New England, we boil our food and call it dinner. What you call ‘roasting’ or ‘baking’, we call ‘frippery!’” And that’s perhaps exactly what the name is meant to express; but New England Boiled Dinner is the name history has given the dish, not the name the original New England dinner-boilers would have used. Like “Old-fashioned Apple Pie” or “The Six Day War”, a certain amount of time has to pass for the title to make any sense. And a lot of things can happen to a dinner left out that long.
Kathleen Stavely (again of Keith and Kathleen, authors of “America’s Founding Food” and “Northern Hospitality”) writes to me in an email that New England Boiled Dinner, in its first Colonial incarnation, grew out of the long tradition of the one-pot, hearth-boiled dish, pottage, which consisted of salted meat and whatever vegetables your area would supply. In New England that would have meant beets, carrots, turnips, potatoes and cabbage.
“New England Boiled Dinner evolved from these much earlier ‘mixed dishes’, as they were also known, and they in turn derived from medieval English cooking. (Indians had similar if sometimes funkier versions; they often left whole fish in the kettle and were adept at spitting the fish bones out as they ate.),” writes Kathleen.
By 1803, boiled dinner has snuck in a British cookbook popular in America, The Frugal Housewife, by Susannah Carter, as a boiled turnip dish. This book also contains exhaustive and graphic instructions on “How to dress a Turtle” that is sure to have a starring role in my next nightmare. By 1845 it has officially been named a “boiled dinner” in Esther Allen Howland’s New England Economical Housekeeper and in the 1877 Buckeye Cookery, it was a “good boiled dinner”, and it had taken on the Victorian flourish of presenting the vegetables on separate dishes. And by 1886, perhaps a result of the Colonial revival love of all things Old New England it was given the regional distinction of being a “New England Boiled Dinner.”
But not everyone, it seems, had unconditional affection for bygone boils. In 1896, Fannie Farmer does not dote on the dish, “Corned beef has but little nutritive value. It is used to give variety to our diet in summer, when fresh meats prove too stimulating. It is eaten by the workingman to give bulk to his food.” In Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book, the boiled dinner is also not protected by a nostalgic halo, “Notwithstanding that this dish has fallen into ill-repute with many people, it may be prepared so as to be both palatable and nutritious for those who exercise freely.”
And this last statement still holds true, actually. The New England Boiled Dinner does seem to have fallen out of favor, despite being delicious, easy, economical and formidably nutritious. But there is one day of the year when the dinner comes out of the root cellar and into the sun: on March 17th the boiled dinner has its day.
The St. Patrick’s Day tradition of eating “Corned Beef and Cabbage”, which is merely another, even more literal, name for New England Boiled Dinner, is an entirely American-Irish invention and doesn’t have a clear-cut origin story. Ireland was a major producer and exporting of corned beef between the 1600s and the mid-1800s, but Irish workers likely would not have been consumers of the luxury meat–they were chiefly pork lovers. Then the potato famine hit, and the great Irish immigration to America began. There are no shortage of theories on how and why the Irish adopted New England Boiled Dinner as their sainted dish; some say they found their beloved but elite beef cheap and plentiful in the New World, and were quick to put it on their plates, others point to the influence the American Jewish culture, and kitchen, would have had on the immigrant community, and others highlight a period of Irish culture revival at work.
In many towns on the South Shore, there is a least as much Irish and there is English in our New England. The Snug in Hingham puts on a St. Patrick’s Day celebration so popular, and a Boiled Dinner so coveted, that honestly, I didn’t stand a chance.
So, I went to Quincy to the equally Irish, but less besieged, Darcy’s, where I got a dish that looks much the same as I imagine it would have looked centuries ago, and will for centuries to come.
In fact, when I recreated Farmer’s Boiled Dinner, it was just a few unnecessary serving dishes away from where it began, and where it is now.
But of course, it wouldn’t be a real New England meal if you can’t use it again to make another real New England meal, and Hash follows Dinner as naturally as day follows night:
As Kathleen Stavely says, history turned one hearty tradition into another, and gave more people a share in the feast:
“America is all about aspiration and fictionalizing one’s past and one’s “traditions”–so bring on the corned beef and cabbage and all Americans on St. Paddy’s Day, even Yankees who once called it NE Boiled Dinner, could partake!”
From THE BOSTON COOKING-SCHOOL COOK BOOK BY FANNIE MERRITT FARMER, PRINCIPAL OF THE BOSTON COOKING-SCHOOL.BOSTON: LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY. 1896
A boiled dinner consists of warm unpressed corned beef, served with cabbage, beets, turnips, carrots, and potatoes. After removing meat from water, skim off fat and cook vegetables (with exception of beets, which require a long time for cooking) in this water. Carrots require a longer time for cooking than cabbage or turnips. Carrots and turnips, if small, may be cooked whole; if large, cut in pieces. Cabbage and beets are served in separate dishes, other vegetables on same dish with meat
Corned Beef Hash
Remove skin and gristle from cooked corned beef, then chop the meat. When meat is very fat, discard most of the fat. To chopped meat add an equal quantity of cold boiled chopped potatoes. Season with salt and pepper, put into a hot buttered frying-pan, moisten with milk or cream, stir until well mixed, spread evenly, then place on a part of the range where it may slowly brown underneath. Turn, and fold on a hot platter. Garnish with sprig of parsley in the middle.
Katherine Perry is a radio reporter based at WATD-FM in Marshfield. Before she entered journalism, Katherine worked just about every food industry job: from selling specialty spices, to line cook, to cheesemonger. Since setting down the spatula and taking up the microphone, she’s found that when she’s got a choice about what to cover, she invariably chooses the edible topic. Right now, she’s absorbed in New England culinary history and is delving into the area’s delicious past.