New England Boiled Dinner
When it comes to eating real food, we’ve got the plainest, squarest, and most wonderful meat and potatoes meal in America — the New England Boiled Dinner.
When Grover Cleveland took over the presidency from Chester A. Arthur in 1885, he inherited more than a new address and the nation’s problems. He came into a legacy of epicurean dining that he loathed. The former President had liked his food with its nose in the air: dits of foie gras, dots of charlotte russe; he even dandified his macaroni pie by adding oysters. Cleveland, a regular Joe of simple tastes, put up with the fancy food; but one night, catching a whiff of corned beef and cabbage being eaten by the servants, the president traded his Arthurian meal for theirs. “It was the best dinner I had had for months,” he later beamed. “Boeuf corne au cabeau!”
Hear, hear, Mr. President! In the current age of culinary frippery and fickle food fashion, of nouvelle cuisine and diet dinners of Pritikin paucity, there is something especially estimable about a plainly named plate of meat and potatoes. Health foodies and fussy chefs de cuisine be damned; the world needs real nourishment when it sits down at the table, a stick-to-the-ribs hunk of cow with vegetables dug up from the good earth. And when it comes to eating plain and square, we in the northeastern part of the United States have everyone else beat. We’ve got the plainest, squarest, clunkiest, and most wonderful meat and potatoes meal in America — the New England Boiled Dinner.
Picture it: a big hunk of corned beef brisket, brick-red, striated with juicy veins of fat, falling-into-shreds tender, sliced thick, in the center of the biggest platter in the house. Around this great meat hub glistens a faded rainbow of vegetables: beets in a crimson puddle that bleeds into the salty dampness of the beef; limp cabbage wedges, steamy and pale; small boiled potatoes and heavy rutabagas luxuriating in the mingled juices. Above this hot rugged landscape hover clouds of briny perfume.
With a glass of cider, hard or sweet, this is the ultimate, the Primal Meal. Compared to it, other contenders for the most basic food in America — steak and french fries or ham and biscuits or turkey and dressing — are fancy. If you doubt us, consider its name: Boiled Dinner! You could not get more generic, prosaic, or neutral unless you called it Dinner, Boiled.
Americans didn’t invent it. English boiled beef goes way back, and most other countries have similar dishes. French pot au feu; Italian bollito misto; even Mongolian hot pots. They are all boiled dinners. But none is a Boiled Dinner.
There is magic to the one and only real thing. It isn’t just corned beef plus cabbage plus other stuff; it’s all of them together on the same plate on Wednesday night, probably in Vermont.
Why Vermont? Because although Boiled Dinner is at home in every New England state, its essential qualities are Vermont’s. It is a commonsense meal, no exotic ingredients. It is a meal with integrity — throw everything into the pot, pull it out when it’s cooked. No tricky culinary manipulations allowed. It is frugal and spartan and pridefully common.
It even looks like Vermont, as much an icon of country life as a checked wool shirt or a hitched team of horses: solid inland food offering plenty of calories that will take a good day’s work to use up.
The simplicity of Boiled Dinner is logical. It gets cold in the North Country, so you stoke a fire. As long as the fire is going, why not put its heat to work cooking dinner? So you hang a pot of water over the heat, throw a bunch of food in, and go about your chores all day while the meal cooks. The rutabaga crop isn’t so good? That’s okay, throw in parsnips or turnips or carrots, whatever root vegetables are handy. It’s the original potluck supper.
Some early cookbooks even call for centerpieces other than corned beef. We’ve seen salt pork, dusted with cinnamoned flour and browned until the fat is rendered, boiled with vegetables and served in the center of the plate with no beef at all. Closer to the shore, you will find aberrant oceanic Boiled Dinners centered around codfish; further south, around — ulp — boiled chicken.
In Maine, it is said, cooks prefer the rump; some books call for beef flank; but the proper anchor is beef brisket, corned. Before it was available in every supermarket in cryovac bags, cooks had to cure their own, submerging the beef for weeks in a brine made from salt and gunpowder (the latter contained in shells known as “corns,” hence the name). Properly corned, the beef has plenty of tang to flavor the pot of water and all the vegetables thrown in. Some traditional Vermont recipes say the corned beef should be boiled with a strip of salt pork for more flavor. In his authoritative book, American Cookery, James Beard suggests studding the brisket with cloves after it’s been boiled, then glazing it with maple syrup or brown sugar and mustard. Beard also says that potatoes weren’t part of the repertoire until 1725.
Spice it up with bay leaves, garlic, peppercorns, throw in a squash or half a dozen onions. It is a tribute to the essential integrity of Boiled Dinner that you can dude it up a thousand ways, but the gravity of its own weight keeps it down to earth.