Yankee Classic: Let's Give Boiled Dinner Its Due
Yankee Magazine April 1986
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. And to further rarify presidential meals, he insisted that everything served at the White House be called by its French name.
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 non-wimp 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.
Let us for a moment forget about all those impossible fantasies found on the pages of gourmet cooking magazines; let’s not think about sushi and pasta and pates of unmentionable entrails. Pack away the food processor, and let the cat have any kiwi fruits lurking in the fridge because we are going to do something bold and daring. We are going to consider the real food that real people eat. We are going to talk about square meals.
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.