Regional food talk
Author Edie Clark: We are what we eat
Molasses and savory ham are more than just ingredients ingested at a weekend church supper. The sea-soaked brine of a clam or oyster on the boardwalk at Hampton is more than just tasty fuel for a day in the sun. These are the smells, tastes and feel of home.
And every place has them: the foods of our youth, the traditional fare of a county picnic, that not only flavor great memories but define the people and places of their popularity.
“Our table is where we come together for our most pleasant times of the day,” said Edie Clark, who in her 30 years of New England travels as a writer and editor for Yankee Magazine has developed a sense of regional foods and how they define that region. She will be giving several talks on the topic this fall through the New Hampshire Humanities Council.
In New England, she says, baked bean suppers, fried clams, fish chowder and Indian pudding make up the backbone of regional cuisine.
“Basically regional food starts with something simple and available — ‘You know, we have these beans and these clams,’” she said. “And it ends with a deeply felt emotional bond.”
By way of example, she said she received a letter at Yankee once from a man living in San Diego who said he had “a million dollars” in fried clams flown in from New England every year.
“He said, ‘It’s what connects me to home,’” Clark said. “This man in San Diego has a fried clam and he’s got sand under his feet all of a sudden.
“I just think food is a direct line to our emotions.”
Arguably one of the most comforting regional foods tugging at those heart strings is a bubbling crock of beans. It used to be, and in some places still is the case, that Saturday night meant baked-bean suppers, whether it was at the local church or just the kitchen table.
“Baked beans were a staple of people growing up here,” Clark said. “There’s different recipes. The standard is molasses. And you have pork fat and beans and molasses and it’s pretty cheap right? And you slow cook it. You keep it at about 150 degrees overnight. And then you have these glorious beans that are sweet and nutritious.”
Though the beans are hearty enough to make a meal of on their own, they’re usually accompanied by coleslaw, meatballs or ham, rolls and a homemade pie.
“That’s a standard baked bean supper,” she said. “I don’t think it’s as popular now as it used to be. But it was always such a mainstay for all the little towns and the people in it.”
For traditional Seacoast folks, it was all about the fish, and a hearty fish stew carries with it the tastes and smells of cool nights by the water.
“Again (the ingredients) are very available,” Clark said. “Fish, if you live near the sea, you could practically get it for free or could get it for free. Milk, again, you know, very available. And you know maybe an onion or potatoes or corn, there are various recipes. But very simple, very good.”
She said outsiders like to thicken fish soups and stews until they look like glue, but that is well, wrong.
“No, no, no. You want to a milk chowder. That’s the standard chowder. And you don’t want a Manhattan chowder, that’s made with tomatoes. Excuse me!” she said with a hearty laugh.
To finish the meal, Indian Pudding is a classic. This simple dish is just corn meal, milk and molasses. “You just slow cook it until it becomes really thick and rich and then you put ice cream on top,” Clark said. “And it has to be slow-cooked to get it to a really good consistency, otherwise it’s just kind of gruel. It’s sweet gruel, but it’s just not Indian pudding.”
6 cups of milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter1/2 cup yellow cornmeal1/4 cup flour1 teaspoon salt1/2 cup molasses3 eggs, beaten1/3 cup of granulated sugar1 teaspoon of cinnamon1 teaspoon of nutmeg1 cup golden raisins (optional)Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream
Scald the milk and butter in a large double boiler. Or heat the milk and butter for 5 or 6 minutes on high heat in the microwave, until it is boiling, then transfer it to a pot on the stove. Keep hot on medium heat.
Preheat oven to 250°F.In a separate bowl, mix cornmeal, flour, and salt; stir in molasses. Thin the mixture with about 1/2 cup of scalded milk, a few tablespoons at a time, then gradually add the mixture back to the large pot of scalded milk. Cook, stirring until thickened.Temper the eggs by slowly adding a half cup of the hot milk cornmeal mixture to the beaten eggs, whisking constantly. Add the egg mixture back in with the hot milk cornmeal mixture, stir to combine. Stir in the sugar and spices, until smooth. At this point, if the mixture is clumpy, you can run it through a blender to smooth it out. Stir in the raisins (optional). Pour into a 2 1/2 quart shallow casserole dish. Bake for 2 hours at 250°F.Allow the pudding to cool about an hour to be at its best. It should be reheated to warm temperature if it has been chilled. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Yield: Serves 8-10.
New England Fish Chowder
1/2 cup butter, divided
3 medium onions, sliced
5 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
4 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3 cups boiling water
2 pounds haddock, cut into large chunks
4 cups milk
1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
Additional salt and pepper, optional
In a soup kettle, melt 1/4 cup butter over medium heat. Saute onions until tender but not browned. Add the potatoes, salt, pepper and water. Top with fish. Simmer, covered, 25 minutes or until potatoes are fork-tender.
In a large saucepan, heat milk over medium heat until bubbles form around side of saucepan. Stir in evaporated milk and remaining butter; add to fish mixture. Season with additional salt and pepper if desired. Heat through.
Yield: about 4 1/2 quarts.