Why Don’t New Englanders Like New England Cuisine?

Regional cuisines everywhere from Copenhagen to California have gotten modern makeovers. So why is Yankee food still stuck in the past?

new england cuisine

Image by Mark Matcho

Let’s say someone asks you to free-associate your thoughts on New England cuisine. You’d likely conjure a few images: cinnamon-sugared cider doughnuts, bowls of thick clam chowder, fried clams, roast turkey, and pumpkin pie. But what about high-end New England cuisine? Confused? Don’t worry—it was a bit of a trick question. You see, in Boston, there isn’t much of that around—and what is around is largely misunderstood.

Regional cuisines have been increasingly popular these days—well, make that other regions’ cuisines. The global success of restaurants like Copenhagen’s Noma, where chef René Redzepi popularized “New Nordic Cuisine,” and Charleston’s Husk, where chef Sean Brock put Lowcountry ingredients on a culinary pedestal to national acclaim, has had a trickle-down effect in Boston (see: sea buckthorn berries gracing small plates in the Back Bay). But as a local food writer and a former food editor at Boston, I’ve been waiting to see a different kind of ripple effect—a “New New England cuisine” of sorts. And why not? Historically speaking at least, Boston has been on the bleeding edge of American gastronomy: The city is home to the nation’s first cooking school and some of the country’s very oldest restaurants. Our universities’ brainiac microbiologists and mathematicians consult with chefs all over the globe. And regionally produced ingredients—pristine shellfish, hazy IPAs, award-winning cheeses—are served in restaurants throughout the country.

But if you look around at what’s happening in Boston under the mantle of New England cuisine today, it’s clear that a cohesive, modern regional identity…is not so clear at all. Most of the Brahmins who dined at places like Parker’s, Locke-Ober, and Union Oyster House have died out, their chairs now filled by tourists. Local restaurant-goers are mostly not nostalgic for brown bread in a can; we’ve become a largely international city. And the newer restaurants that have tried to modernize the Yankee canon have been largely met with resistance—or closed. Meanwhile, in the past five years alone, Boston has gained upward of a dozen regionally specific southern restaurants, focusing on everything from Viet-Cajun crawfish boils to Texas barbecue.

So why do some regional cuisines have broader traction than others—even when one has the home-turf advantage? Is it as simple as the fact that clam chowder (even cheffed-up clam chowder) will always have less sex appeal than fried chicken? Perhaps the answer lies in the way we think of New England food to begin with.

What is New England cuisine, exactly? There’s no tidy answer. Most recognizably, there’s Yankee food, or the baked beans and Indian pudding you’ll find at the likes of Durgin Park, but it’s a framework that’s limited at best. There are the indigenous ingredients first consumed by Native Americans—from cranberries, corn, and squash to shad, sunchokes, and shellfish—and the dairy and livestock traditions introduced by European colonists. And then there are the myriad immigrant influences, from Portuguese and Italian to Dominican and Chinese. “What we have going on, within such a small area comparatively to the coastline of California, it’s so diverse and rich culturally from pocket to pocket,” says chef Matt Jennings, who released the successful New England cookbook Homegrown last fall and ran the “New England brasserie” Townsman in Downtown Crossing’s swank Radian building until this past summer.

So why, then, haven’t New England’s gastronomic bona fides been embraced in the same way as, say, regional southern cuisine, which continues to trend here and across the country? More than two dozen interviews with local chefs and food experts in the Greater Boston area and beyond yielded many plausible theories. There are issues of seasonality—there’s only one time of year, summer, when New England can culinarily hang on the same cuisine-of-bounty playing field as regions such as California and the South. There’s the theory that iconic Massachusetts exports (a list that includes Toll House cookies, fish sticks, Friendly’s, and, you know, Thanksgiving dinner) have not only been subsumed into American culture writ large, but are also inextricably linked with lowbrow food and home cooking, not haute cuisine. And there’s also the expense, the inherently high price point of local ingredients and the soaring cost of doing business here in general, which leads chefs to make deals with landlords of glassy skyscrapers that hardly contribute to fostering a regional sense of place.

But above all, they point to an unshakably stodgy reputation that’s endured since the time of the Pilgrims and Puritans. “I think people wanted to fixate on that idea of New England as the first Thanksgiving dinner, and we are not really going past that…. It’s milky clam chowder and baked beans,” says Megan Elias, a food historian and director of the gastronomy program at Boston University. Chef Jasper White, for his part, agrees: “There is just something about New England that isn’t sexy. It’s so ingrained in the American psyche.”

The last time Boston-based chefs made a national sensation out of New England cuisine was in the late ’70s through the early ’90s, when White, alongside chef Lydia Shire, first ran the kitchen at Parker’s, followed by Seasons at the Bostonian Hotel, where they put caviar on Rhode Island–style johnnycakes and turned humble cellar staples like parsnips and cabbage into fine-dining-worthy dishes. In 1984, Shire’s Drambuie-flamed lobster landed a cover of Food & Wine magazine with the headline “The Great Boston Restaurant Revival.” White went on to open Jasper’s in the North End, where he gained national fame for his signature pan-roasted lobster with chervil and chives, while Shire opened the eclectic Biba overlooking Boston Common, serving lobster pizza and Fanny Farmer’s Chantilly potatoes alongside beer-battered calves’ brains to great acclaim. Key to their success was avoiding a draconian approach to menu influences: At Biba, Shire kept a tandoori oven in the kitchen. White’s iconic lobster dish, meanwhile, arose after he learned wok cookery from a toque at nearby high-end Chinese restaurant Sally Ling’s.

By contrast, another chef of the same era, Bruce Frankel, emerged as a cautionary tale of what can happen when you focus too narrowly on the “Ye Olde” part of New England. With the opening of the Colony in 1986, Frankel and his partner, pastry chef David Kantrowitz, decided to go all in on Colonial cuisine, studying live-fire cooking techniques at Plimoth Plantation and poring over the cookbooks housed at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library before opening a white-tablecloth restaurant on Boylston Street. The restaurant closed within four years. “It didn’t knit together,” Frankel says. “There is a simplicity to New England cuisine. It’s not supposed to be fancy.”

Eventually, White himself tired of putting Yankee food on a fine-dining pedestal, and closed Jasper’s in order to launch an ode to the New England clam shack, one of the region’s true culinary success stories. “I kept thinking, you know…I just want to serve fried clams with steamers. That’s where I went emotionally and professionally,” White says. His shocked fans called him a sellout. “They couldn’t believe such a great chef could do average food,” he says. “I didn’t care.” Which makes sense when you consider that on a busy week, White says, his Summer Shack locations (there are outposts in Boston, Cambridge, and at Mohegan Sun) serve more than 10,000 people combined, numbers that any area restaurateur would kill for.

When it comes to high-end dining, White acknowledges that the landscape today is simply different than it was 30 years ago. “Cuisine always evolves and always changes,” he says. “Maybe using the past as inspiration for New England cuisine, maybe that’s not what New England cuisine is anymore.”

Today, chefs who do go all in on modern New England food face a bit of a culinary Catch-22: Eschew the more-obvious tropes of the cuisine, and you won’t be viewed as regionally specific. But try to take Yankee dishes upscale, and you’re likely to hear a singular refrain: “I don’t get it.”

When Will Gilson opened Puritan & Company in Cambridge in 2012, his menu contained dishes such as artfully arranged “boiled dinner” vegetables, bluefish pâté served alongside homemade hardtack crackers, and deconstructed clam chowder. In the six years that have followed, the menu has been dialed way back. “We have never been busier since our food has been more…‘suggestive’ New England,” Gilson says.

Townsman, meanwhile, closed over the summer, a combination of Jennings seeking a lifestyle change and the concept not finding lasting success with downtown diners. “My kind of mission was always to blend regional inspirations with international flavor,” he says. “I don’t know if that meshing or melding of New England with global food was too challenging for people or didn’t make sense to people…. There [were] definitely hits and flops.”

Most dogmatic of the bunch has been Loyal Nine chef/co-owner Marc Sheehan, a Menton alum, who blends his fine-dining background with his New England cuisine nerd-dom for a cooking style he calls “East Coast Revival.” Loyal Nine’s pantry includes ingredients such as mushroom ketchup, a historical predecessor to glossy Heinz that arrived in the Colonies by way of China and the British Empire, while a signature small plate, “soused bluefish on brown bread,” is infinitely more photogenic—and delicious—than the words “soused,” “bluefish,” and “brown bread” would have you think.

When Loyal Nine first opened in 2015, Sheehan’s menu was so foreign to diners that it required its own glossary for dishes like pondemnast (an obscure porridge), sallet (a predecessor to salad), and brewis (a sourdough bread pudding). For Sheehan, a Milton native and history major at Holy Cross, that was precisely the point. After encountering dishes in New England reference books, he was inspired by the number of things he didn’t recognize. “That kind of got me really excited—that I have lived here my whole life and there was this world here that existed that I knew nothing about,” he says.

But while diners might be accustomed to encountering a new-to-them Middle Eastern spice (see: the glossary on the menu at Oleana just up the road), a Revolutionary War–era dish that’s fallen out of the modern lexicon has ended up being a much tougher sell. “You go into it confident,” Sheehan says of the earlier days at the restaurant, though he soon learned that his excitement wasn’t contagious: “It was like, ‘Oh, people really don’t give a shit about the history behind the chicken dish.’”

One thing is certain: If Boston wants to make space for a brand of New England cuisine that better represents what people want to eat today, the narrative itself needs to evolve. Chef Tiffani Faison, who runs the southern barbecue spot Sweet Cheeks, the Southeast Asian restaurant Tiger Mama, and the new snack bar Fool’s Errand in the Fenway, compares the view of New England cuisine in Boston today to California’s “fig-on-a-plate” reputation before it had its own modern, diverse resurgence, arguing that we’re ripe for something similar. “Our idea of New England food is as parochial as we have been for a long time,” she says. “We have to understand what the next incarnation of New England is.”

Fred Opie, a professor of history and foodways at Babson College, agrees. “We have too much of a Eurocentric interpretation of New England food,” he says, pointing out that beginning the conversation with the arrival of the colonists is the wrong place to start. “And the wrong place to stop the conversation is when all of these immigrant groups came in, starting with the Irish to the Africans and Latin Americans…. If you can’t think outside of the box, you can’t do much with it.” You can already find many of these far-reaching culinary threads at top restaurants around town. At Mei Mei, for example, Brookline-raised siblings Andy, Irene, and Mei Li’s style of “creative Chinese-American food” includes components such as cranberry hoisin sauce and bluefish fritters. Café du Pays in Kendall Square drew on co-owner Heather Mojer’s French-Canadian roots for its maple-and-pork-heavy menu. The Back Bay’s Cusser’s Roast Beef and Seafood and Somerville’s Hot Box, meanwhile, are exploring modern renditions of North Shore roast beef sandwiches and South Shore bar pies.

And this winter, the splashy North Adams hotel Tourists will gain a high-profile restaurant in the form of Loom, helmed by chef Cortney Burns, formerly the co-chef of San Francisco’s celebrated Bar Tartine. Burns, who studied anthropology before working in the restaurant world, says her menu will offer an imagined narrative inspired by the immigrant communities—Chinese, Italian, Lebanese, Welsh, and more—that have come through North Adams to work in the area’s mills. “I am looking to history almost asking for permission to use certain flavors and ingredients in a way that feels honoring to them,” Burns says. “Looking to see what would happen if these people would have cooked a meal together.” This translates to five-spice roast chicken with turnip dumplings, and Italian apple cake flavored with sumac and rose.

These threads, though, have yet to be braided into a more comprehensive, nuanced story. And a research and storytelling organization could be what weaves them together. In the South, the Southern Foodways Alliance, devoted to studying the region’s food culture, operates out of the University of Mississippi. Noma’s Redzepi, meanwhile, cofounded the Nordic Food Lab, a nonprofit that researches Nordic foodways. What about something similar here, in a city with some of the most prestigious thought leadership in the world? “My ideal is to collaborate—find an institution that wants to be the base for a New England Foodways Alliance,” Opie says.

Such an organization would also take some of the narrative pressure away from chefs, which in turn might free them up for a more crucial goal: making food that’s undeniably delicious. When prioritizing the history of a dish over its flavor, Loyal Nine’s Sheehan admits, he wasn’t helping his cause. “It didn’t always result in something that was good,” he says. Loyal Nine’s original iteration of pondemnast, more true to the reference book where Sheehan found it, was a creamy, savory porridge bolstered with stewed turkey neck. It would often return to the kitchen half-eaten. Today’s version of the dish has more in common philosophically with White’s pan-roasted lobster than with something out of a history book. It’s made to order, each batch of steel-cut oats carefully flipped twice to maximize a contrast of creamy and crispy grains, more akin to fried rice than primordial gruel. A diner will discover something different with each bite—pockets of spicy garlic aioli, caramelized nuggets of kohlrabi, silky spinach and onion purée, sautéed ribbons of Swiss chard, crumbles of fried fingerling potatoes tossed with flax seeds and blackened shallots.

All told, it has the longest ingredient list of any dish on the Loyal Nine menu. But it’s still porridge. “It’s very simple,” Sheehan says of this version. “But you have to pay attention to it.” On the menu, by the way, it’s now phrased, simply, as “crispy steel-cut oats.”