Yankee Classic: Let's Give Boiled Dinner Its Due
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.
Which is not to say you couldn’t start a civil war about what is and is not proper on the Boiled Dinner plate. Esther Serafini of Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, is already on the warpath. Sixteen years ago the Time-Life Books cooking series printed her recipe for Boiled Dinner, but changed it to suit their taste by adding one onion pierced with one clove. When we checked the recipe with her, she was still steaming. "I was never so angry in my life," she fumed. "Whoever heard of an onion in a Boiled Dinner?"
Mrs. Serafini, whose family has run the Homestead Inn for generations, is in charge of making the dowdy dish that has been the house specialty for more than 100 years. She explains its popularity among rural New Englanders by saying, "We were poor. All poor families could raise some vegetables and find a piece of meat to put with them. Boiled Dinners kept us strong and healthy."
That’s the idea. Strong and healthy. In her New England Cookbook, Eleanor Early remembers that "Wednesday was Boiled Dinner Day. When Grandpa came home at midday, the hired girl staggered into the dining room with an enormous ironstone platter which she placed before him. To have dinner on the table at noon, Grandmother was up at dawn." Up at dawn? Yes, the truth is that although the cooking technique — boiling the hell out of everything — is simple, a successful Boiled Dinner demands a lot of effort, effort and time that no modern kitchen implement can reduce. Boiled Dinner means making food the old-fashioned way.
That is the way they continue to do things at the venerable Homestead Inn. Like Eleanor Early’s grandmother, Mrs. Serafini gets up with the sun to start the beef boiling in a large kettle. When it’s properly tender, she removes it from its salty liquor, carefully wrapping it in aluminum foil to keep it moist. She then divides the cooking liquid into numerous pots, and boils each vegetable for the proper length of time, cabbage last.