You Asked, We Answered: Does N.H. Have a Signature Food?

Sep 22, 2017

Is boiled dinner *really* New Hampshire's signature dish? Because yeah, that seems kind of sad.
Credit wine4food.com

It is that time of year when Honeycrisp apples are abundant, orchards are packed with families, and the leaves are just starting to turn. And one of the best ways to celebrate the onset of fall is indulging in New England’s seasonal food traditions.

But when it comes to regional foods, what is quintessentially New Hampshire, and what’s just New England-y? 

You can get cider donuts in Massachusetts or Maine, or maple syrup in Vermont. Which brings us to a question posed by a listener for our Only In NH series:

“Does New Hampshire actually have any signature foods? I saw once that their signature dish was 'boiled dinner' ...which sounds really sad.”

To investigate this question about New Hampshire’s signature regional foods, we called Eric Wochholz, curator of historic landscapes at Strawberry Banke Museum in Portsmouth.

Eric gave us some background on the regional foods of New England - which, like most other of American food history, is a story about immigration.

"Here in New England it’s really a melting pot of what was brought here versus what was adopted as Europeans learned more and more about Native American culture, and their way of cultivating, and their traditional recipes of preservation."

Crops like corn, beans, and squash; pickling and drying fruits, meat, and veggies; maple sugaring... these are some of the essential Native American traditions adopted - or appropriated, really - into our local diet.

Senior producer Taylor Quimby makes the case for cider donuts as New Hampshire's signature food
Credit NHPR Staff

Another important factor - geography. Southern foodways are rich with agricultural influences that weren’t available in the Northeast - where industry was more important than crop production.

"One of the issues in the north was this was the manufacturing hub," Wochholz says.

Which explain why New Hampshire is remembered more for its paper mills than its peaches. Of course, culture plays a huge role in our historical foodways - and not just the Native influences. We also had traditions blow in from the North…by way of Europe.

"The aspect of courses was certainly a French influence when it came to separating things and going through a progression go through a meal...as opposed to having central entrees," Wochholz explains.

And speaking of French influence, here’s a possible contender for New Hampshire’s signature dish: che casserole, first invented by a French-Canadian immigrant in Berlin in 1886. That’s according to Wikipedia anyway - the tale has inspired some arguments in our office about what technically is and is not a casserole.

A vintage New Hampshire cookbook
Credit NHPR Staff

Either way, New England’s food traditions can seem a bit bland when compared with the spicy gumbos and jumbalayas African and Caribbean influence of the Gulf, or BBQ in the south. Our cuisine has a touch of the hardscrabble Puritan vibe.

Except maybe on the coast.

"There is this dominating aspect of European old world traditions in cuisine. In my opinion," Wochholz says, "I think the original question was what’s really signature to New Hampshire - it’s gotta be seafood.

Which makes sense. Seafood pulled in in Portsmouth is as tasty as what gets pulled in Boothbay. But with only a few miles of coastline, New Hampshire will never be known for seafood the way our neighboring state is, what with all those clam shacks and restaurants advertising fresh ‘Maine Lobstah’.

Meanwhile, Iowa claims corn and Vermont has maple syrup...and cheddar.

Which leaves us with… boiled dinner? That is kind of sad.

Boiled dinner usually appears on New England menus in the form of a corned beef brisket, or ham, hemmed in by a variety of root vegetables, along with a couple thick slices of limp cabbage....all of which turns to mush.

It is - as the name would suggest boiled - the sort of practical meal that looks as if it should be capitalized. Boiled Dinner - a proper noun. It’s history, though, is less austere.

A reasonable question for Eric Wolchholz: "Was it considered a peasant food?"

"It was. it’s kind of like the history of lobster. Lobster originally was a peasant food. They were boiling mostly European crops… cabbage, cauliflower, leafy kolwarts, the brassicas. They often called it the 'gentlemen’s dinner' if enhanced with meat stocks.

We looked online and it’s true that you will find the occasional article listing boiled dinner as New Hampshire’s signature dish, although some other New England states might debate the claim. Regardless, it is a meal you’ll find served at local bed n’ breakfasts and village restaurants...for now anyway.

A recipe for "White Mountain Cake", from The Housekeepers' Assistant, 1893, courtesy of The Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery at Bowdoin College.

Want to hear the rest of this story? Scroll up to listen to the audio version, or click here to hear it on Word of Mouth.

To submit your question about New Hampshire or your community, visit our Only in NH project page right here.