Editor’s Note: A classic from our November 2007 issue.
I would be willing to bet serious money that right now in your kitchen you have olive oil, garlic, pasta, parmesan cheese, and dried basil (maybe even fresh basil!). Nothing exotic there, right? They’re ingredients we take for granted. But their appearance in our kitchens is a relatively recent phenomenon. Believe me, those big-flavor items did not come over on the Mayflower. It took generations, even centuries, for Americans to expand their culinary horizons to the point where just about everybody cooks Italian and orders Chinese take-out. Heck, the supermarket in my little Connecticut hometown even has a sushi bar.
Alas! It was not always thus. American cuisine, like the settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth, got off to a rocky start. Blame it on our English and ScotchIrish ancestors. As a people they possessed many admirable qualities; they were tough, they were independent, some of them could read. Yet the original settlers of the American colonies were not famous for their discerning palate. Let me give you an example.
When the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in 1620, lobsters were so common all you had to do was stroll down to the nearest tidal pool and pluck them out by the bushel. But the Pilgrims wanted meat, not fish—not even fish as succulent as lobster. Very quickly familiarity bred contempt: The better class of colonists scorned the crustacean as suitable only for the poor. In his journal for the year 1622, William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth colony, recorded the landing of a boatload of new colonists from England. Their arrival was a thrilling event, yet Bradford confessed that he and his fellow Plymouth residents were humiliated that they had nothing better to offer the newcomers than lobster. (How times change. These days, the only thing that could make a Yankee recoil from lobster is the price.)
In fact, the English settlers looked upon virtually all fish (sturgeon and oysters being the exceptions) with scorn—and this in a land where the shoreline and coastal rivers were teeming with salmon, cod, flounder, shad, haddock, and sea bass. As for clams and mussels, the Pilgrims fed them to their pigs. As if this prejudice against seafood weren’t enough, early Yankee cuisine suffered from a severe disadvantage: The Pilgrims had brought no livestock with them. The first cattle—three cows and a bull—did not arrive in Massachusetts until 1624. In other words, during their first four years in America the Pilgrims were without butter, cheese, milk, and cream. Their neighbors to the south, the Dutch on the island of Manhattan, moved much more quickly to bring diary products to America. Barely a year after the Dutch established the New Amsterdam colony, the first huddled mass of Holsteins came ashore at what is now New York City’s Battery Park.
The culinary situation in colonial America improved somewhat when the first German colonists arrived in 1683. If there isn’t a commemorative plaque at the site of that little settlement at Germantown, Pennsylvania, there ought to be. Here was the birthplace of the first sauerbraten in America; the cradle of cole slaw; the spot where for the first time boiled potatoes were tossed in a warm, savory dressing of fried bacon, white vinegar, and mustard. It is not going too far to say that food that tasted good arrived in America with the Germans. Under the influence of the newcomers English and Scotch-Irish cooks added some German recipes to their repertoire, but by and large they clung to their classic overcooked, under-seasoned, overly sweetened fare.
Yankees are often derided for boiling perfectly good meat. I wish I could dismiss this as slander, but I am afraid that our ancestors did indeed boil everything from loins of beef to the turkeys that were served at the first Thanksgiving. But they had their reasons. Roasting meat over an open fire took hours, requiring someone to stand there and turn the spit. Adults were too busy to do the job, and it was hard to dragoon the children into spending three monotonous hours sweltering over a hot fire. The simplest solution was to plunk the meat in the boiling pot and walk away.
This sad desecration hung on among Americans of British and Irish descent well into the 20th century. I knew a Michigan woman who shortly after her wedding day in the late 1940s invited her in-laws over for dinner. She bought a loin of beef and prepared it the way her Irish-born mother always had—by boiling it until it was well done. While helping with the dishes after the meal was done, the new homemaker’s mother-in-law confided, “When I was first married I boiled beef, too. But trust me, dear, beef is much tastier if you roast it. Especially if you take it out of the oven when it’s medium rare.”
Then there are vegetables: Yankees didn’t like them. The Yankee idea of a fine meal was several varieties of meat, a heaping basket of wheat bread, followed by lots of sweets for dessert. If vegetables appeared on the table, they were boiled beyond recognition. It was the Shakers who first taught American cooks to undercook vegetables. Shaker chefs also discovered that a cup or two of vegetable stock went a long way to enriching the flavor of gravy and sauces.
The American Revolution was a hope-filled era, and not just in terms of politics. When our French allies arrived in America to support our Revolution, they brought their flair for cuisine with them. They took to roasting American turkey, although they added truffles to the stuffing. They even adopted that American staple, corn mush sweetened with molasses, but they improved on the American recipe by adding a shot of cognac and topping the mush with whipped cream. It sounds like a promising beginning, but sad to say the French alliance had no lasting impact on Yankee cuisine. As late as 1796, when the first American cookbook was published in Hartford, Connecticut, author Amelia Simmons declared, “Garlicks, tho’ used by the French, are better adapted to the uses of medicine than cookery.” One reads such a statement and sighs heavily.
Although George Washington employed a French chef and Thomas Jefferson enjoyed French recipes he had collected in Paris, they were the exception; the upper classes in America held fast to the British Isles style of cooking. In fact, all classes of Americans were suspicious—even hostile—when confronted with fancified food. It was not until the late 19th century, when the new American millionaires began importing French chefs to serve in their kitchens, that French cuisine gained some ground in the United States.
By the 1830s, a large majority of Americans had begun to see their plain food as a virtue. Cookbooks emphasized simplicity and frugality, not meals that brought a succession of interesting flavors to the table. Plain cuisine even became an issue in the presidential campaign of 1836. William Henry Harrison’s supporters managed to convince voters that their man was just ordinary folks, content to live in a log cabin, eat his corn mush, and wash it down with old-fashioned hard cider. Martin Van Buren, on the other hand, was portrayed as a foppish, Frenchified, unAmerican snob who sipped champagne from a silver goblet and liked to begin his meals with consommé. The smear worked, and the gourmandizing Van Buren lost the election.
I don’t mean to overstate my case. For all the hide-bound conservatism of Yankee cooks, they did manage to whip up some pretty tasty dishes. New England clam chowder may not sound as sophisticated as bouillabaisse, but it is delicious nonetheless. And then there is Boston baked beans, a Yankee staple that marks the only occasion in American history when the Puritans actually improved upon an existing recipe. The first settlers learned how to bake beans from the New England Indian tribes who mixed beans with maple syrup in an earthenware pot, added a large piece of fatty bear meat, then set the pot in a pit lined with hot stones to bake for several hours.
The colonists preferred molasses as a sweetener, and replaced the strong, nasty tasting bear meat with salt pork. The result was a New England classic that is especially associated with Boston. Food folklore tells us that throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Saturday night was baked beans night in Boston. It’s impossible to say whether the story is 100 percent accurate, but it is true that baked beans appear in the oldest Yankee cookbooks.
Ultimately it was immigration that proved to be the making of contemporary Yankee cuisine. The Italians brought us the good stuff I mentioned at the start of this article. From the Dutch we learned how to make waffles and donuts. Thanks to the Hungarians paprika appears in the spice rack of every Yankee kitchen. From Eastern Europe, Jewish immigrants brought us the bagel, cheesecake, and world-class chicken soup. The Chinese gave us stir-fry, sticky rice, and dim sum. The Japanese taught us to love sushi, sashimi, and tempura. And via our friends the Turks and the Armenians, come summer, shish kebab is as likely to appear on a Yankee grill as hot dogs. It’s commonplace to say that the United States is a nation of immigrants, and each group that came to America brought its own gifts. Yankee self-sufficiency may have come ashore at Plymouth Rock, but tasty food arrived by way of Ellis Island.