Four hundred years is a long time to develop a style of cuisine, so it’s no wonder that New England foods are so well-established and beloved. Let’s dig into the many delicious foods that originated in our region.
The History of Traditional New England Food
Our style of cooking may have entered history when the colonists first arrived, but it borrowed heavily from the Native Americans who were already here and whose education in local foodways was vital to the survival of the colonies. A traditional Thanksgiving dinner that we’d eat today still has traces of that influence, as does a clam bake, which came straight from the Native American style of cooking along the coast of what would become Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine.
The lobster roll is a New England food icon. Depending on where you are from, there is some debate on the “right” way to prepare it. Some like it the traditional Maine way, chilled and dressed in mayonnaise, while others prefer Connecticut-style, served warm with melted butter. One thing we can all agree on? The best way to eat it is on a grilled, split-top hot dog bun, waterfront views optional.
England is credited with inventing the seafood basket – usually fried fish, chips and coleslaw, but New England took the idea to the next level with the invention of fried clams in 1916 by Henry “Chubby” Woodman in Essex, Mass. Add in fried day-boat scallops and perfectly crispy cod, and you’ve got the kind of summer meal people travel thousands of miles for.
Back in the days when New England was still a group of British colonies, settlers adapted English-style pudding to local ingredients, namely, cornmeal, abundant in the area, and molasses, which was readily available because of its role in making rum. This slow-cooked pudding isn’t beautiful to look at – it’s basically a pile of brown goo – but add a scoop of vanilla ice cream and it is sweet and simple New England comfort food at its best.
Clam Cakes & Chowder
While every clam shack puts their own unique spin on it, New England clam chowder does not originate from New England. We may love it enough to eat it in every season, but the soup is believed to have come from French or Canadian settlers. Rhode Island clam chowder, made with a clear broth, is all ours. The same goes for clam cakes, invented in the early 1900s by Carrie Cooper, a Connecticut native who later moved to Rhode Island and opened Aunt Carrie’s restaurant in Narragansett to sell her seaside fare.
Another New England staple that owes a debt to the Native Americans johnnycakes are cornmeal pancakes that were once ubiquitous on local dinner tables. Cornmeal, and its various preparations, was one of the first foods shared by the Native Americans with the pilgrims when they landed in 1620.Johnnycakes (which have nothing to do with a man named John – the name is thought to have evolved from the Native American word for corn cake, janiken) are not as popular as they used to be, but there are still old-school diners around the region that serve them with eggs and bacon for breakfast.
Boston Baked Beans
How important is this iconic preparation of brown beans baked with molasses and salt pork to Boston? Well, the city is known as Beantown, after all. For maximum authenticity, enjoy with hearty brown bread, some New Englanders may insist, straight out of the B&M can. Inspired by their resemblance, sugar-coated peanuts are also known as Boston baked beans.
Yankee pot roast, defined as such because it’s cooked with vegetables, has a hazy background. While it’s popular in New England, there’s some debate over whether the “Yankee” part comes from its origin or from a joke about the inexpensive dinner’s appeal to penny pinchers. The tradition of boiling corned meat, cabbage, potatoes and carrots came from the Irish, but in Ireland they typically used pork. Irish immigrants in Boston substituted beef, which was more affordable (in America), to create what has become known throughout the country as Irish Boiled Dinner – though truly, it’s a New England food.
Stuffed clams were brought to America by Italian immigrants, but the use of quahogs, and the addition of Portuguese sausage evolved the simple stuffed clam into something definitively New England. Another variation of the stuffed clam, clams casino was invented at the turn of the 20th century at a luxury seaside resort called the Narragansett Pier Casino in Rhode Island.
Boston Cream Pie
The Parker House Hotel in Boston – the first hotel in the city to have hot and cold running water and an elevator, is responsible for three iconic foods: Parker House rolls, baked scrod and Boston cream pie. The latter was invented as “Parker House pie” for the hotel’s opening in 1856, though if you’ve had it you know that the custard-filled, chocolate-topped confection is definitely a cake and not a pie. It’s still served (and shipped nationwide) by what is now the Omni Parker House.
Coffee milk is such an integral part of New England’s food traditions that it’s hard to imagine that the rest of the country has barely heard of the stuff. The drink, made with coffee syrup and milk, traces back to the 19th century population of Italian immigrants to Providence and their tradition of drinking sweet coffee with milk. Eclipse and Autocrat, the two most popular coffee syrups, are still made in Rhode Island.
More New England Foods
These foods didn’t quite make the list, but we still love them!
Whoopie pies: Famously made in Maine, the Pennsylvania Dutch also have a claim to this cream-filled sandwich cake.
Chocolate chip cookies: While invented in 1938 at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, MA, this cookie jar favorite is so ubiquitous that we can’t rightly call them unique to our region.
Marshmallow Fluff: Though it’s been made by Durkee Mower in Lynn, MA, for a century, similar marshmallow cremes existed before the factory opened. The fluffernutter, however, invented by a descendant of Paul Revere, is all New England’s.
Anadama Bread: This yeast-risen bread made with molasses and cornmeal was invented in the mid-1800s somewhere on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Despite a drop in popularity, it remains a New England gem.
Fried Calamari: The official state appetizer of Rhode Island is marked by the addition of hot peppers, but the dish itself originated in Europe and became popular in New York around the same time it did in New England. Scientists at MIT did invent the machine that made cleaning squid easier, and therefore more popular.
Del’s Lemonade: They might make the best frozen lemonade around, but they didn’t invent it.
The only thing better than eating New England food is debating which is best. This was a completely subjective list written by a lifelong New Englander. Add your opinions in the comments below!