CENTER HARBOR — Though they walk in their footsteps, contemporary New Englanders enjoy a diet that is far different from that of the Europeans who colonized the region centuries ago. Foods served on local tables have been affected by changing religious views, trade, technology and politics. Even so, some dishes have managed to hold on to their place on the dinner table through the generations, giving today's diners a direct link to the Puritans who arrived nearly 400 years ago.
The question of what those early New Englanders ate was one that fascinated cookbook author and cooking instructor Barbara Lauterbach, who combined her twin passions of history and food to conduct enough research into the matter to give a presentation on the topic to the Center Harbor Historical Society. The idea also captured the imagination of Amy Elfline, owner of restaurants The Mug and The Bay, who mined Lauterbach's findings to compile a menu for one of her chef's night dinners.
On Friday night, from 5 to 9 p.m., diners at The Bay will be able to sample a selection of dishes that have nourished hungry New England residents for centuries.
Lauterbach, who was assisted in her research by her daughter, Elisabeth Laskin, associate dean at Harvard Summer School, found that the Puritans who arrived in Massachusetts in the 17th Century existed on a bland diet, one that was resulting as much from religious philosophy as it was from necessity.
"They were strongly conscientious, religion affected their diet greatly," said Lauterbach. When it came to their food, Puritans equated the bland with the pious, she said. They learned to grow corn from the American Indians they encountered, she said, and those who lived near the coast took advantage of lobsters and an abundance of cod, which was salted as a means of preservation.
Parsnips and carrots, brought from Europe, were mixed with native squashes and vegetables. Lauterbach found that a staple of the diet was a kind of legume referred to as "field pease." These had little in common to sweet green peas, instead they were small, white beans that could be dried for later use and the boiled until they disintegrated into a paste-like porridge. The dish would be consumed hot or cold, with little to no seasoning, for days at a time. Indeed, the saying "Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot, nine days old" was as much a menu plan as it was a nursery rhyme.
The porridge would often have been eaten with a piece of brown bread. Especially for the first several generations of New Englanders, white flour would have been reserved for only special occasions or for the wealthiest of residents. Instead, this bread would have been made from a dough of wheat flour mixed with the more readily-available corn meal.
It's fortunate for contemporary eaters that time marched onward from the bland pot of porridge. Lauterbach said that once cooks relaxed their Puritan ideals and trade routes made the ingredients accessible, they began adding saltpork, molasses and other spices to their beanpots, resulting in the much more palatable baked beans so closely associated with Boston.
New England clam chowder is another dish of the ages that underwent a similar evolution. Dairy products were a scarce commodity in New England prior to the widespread introduction of dairy herds in the 19th Century. Prior to this development, said Lauterbach, chowder would have been a much thinner soup, then became the rich, creamy concoction once milk and cream became one of the region's most affordable products.
Another food item closely associated with New England also came to the fore midway through the 1800s. When the 19th Century began, molasses was a common sweetener. However, it being a commodity imported from south of the Mason-Dixon line, northern cooks boycotted the product during the Civil War, and maple syrup usurped molasses's spot in New England's pantries.
Of all the long-lived dishes still served in the region, Lauterbach said the New England boiled dinner is likely the one that changed the least over time. Simply a chunk of meat, placed in a pot with vegetables and cooked for hours on the hearth, it would have been a great way for a 17th Century housewife to prepare a hearty dinner while attending to other chores while it bubbled away. The only difference between that meal and one served today would be that modern cooks would likely be more generous with seasonings.
Through her research, Lauterbach said, "I came to the conclusion that what goes around comes around." Today's culinarians prize locally-sourced, organic ingredients, which were all that the Pilgrims had access to. "However," added Lauterbach, "it's ever so much improved."
The menu for the Sept. 20 chef's night dinner, said Elfline, will feature chowder, boiled dinner, baked beans with brown bread and salmon with peas and an egg sauce, all served tapas-style. For dessert, a slice of apple pie and a piece of sharp cheddar.
"The idea is to take people through what they used to serve in New Hampshire 200 years ago," said Elfline. However, she added, her chef will be aiming to please the modern palate more so than Puritan ideals. "We will add a little more spice than what they did — we certainly want to make it flavorful, but we want to make it as authentic as possible so people can see how they used to eat."
The cost of the chef's night dinner is $30 per person, call 677-7141 to make a reservation.