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New England Boiled Dinner

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.

Even if one wants to be more traditional and boil all the vegetables together, Mrs. Serafini warns, the beets have to be separated out lest they bleed into their pot-mates. She admits that this is a nicety for the sake of Homestead guests. She’d throw the beets right in with the rest if she were doing it just for her family, who she cheerfully says, “wouldn’t give a hoot.”

When everything is cooked, she serves dinner to guests on ten-inch glass plates which, like everything else at the Homestead, are family heirlooms. With an artist’s eye she places three strips of beef in the center, cabbage and potato — both pale — at each end, then adds the more colorful turnips, carrots, and beets in between. On the side comes a horseradish sauce that Mrs. Serafini says makes her guests go, “Oooooeeeahhh!”

Boiled Dinner is family food, served at grand old inns like the Homestead or Philbrook Farm in Shelburne, New Hampshire, but mostly at home. Still, there are some restaurants that are not too highfalutin to offer Boiled Dinner. The Bar-Jo Restaurant in South Paris, Maine, where the sign out front boasts of Electrically Cooked Foods, serves it every Thursday, as does Moody’s in Waldoboro; you’ll find it on occasion at the Fairlee Diner in Vermont, and at its sister restaurant, Roberts’ Country Kitchen in Thetford. Up north, in Berlin, New Hampshire, The Wayside Restaurant makes a grand Boiled Dinner three times a month, usually on Sundays, as well as an even rarer edible antique, salt pork with milk gravy.

One other special item occasionally found on the Wayside menu is red flannel hash, the dish that many consider to be Boiled Dinner’s better half. Let it now be said: no Boiled Dinner is truly over with until days later, when the last of the red flannel hash is served. Indeed, Boiled Dinner cannot be honestly discussed without fair mention of this, its second, scarlet incarnation, for the simple reason that never in the recorded history of New England has an entire Boiled Dinner been polished off at one sitting.

All of us morning people, who think that breakfast is the gastronomic high point of the day, contend that the best reason to go to all the trouble of a Boiled Dinner is those lovely leftovers. Hack ’em up, moisten with a splash of cream, and slap a thick pancake’s worth into a greased cast-iron skillet. Fry it crisp, serve it with a sunny dropped egg on top, and when your fork breaks through the patty’s crust to its tender insides, the reason for the name becomes apparent — the beets have tinted the whole juicy mess a rosy red.

The chopped-up leftovers are actually prettier than the original dish. Boiled Dinner is a rugged, at best handsome, platter of chow; red flannel hash is ravishing, downright elegant. As the beets and corned beef sizzle, casting their resplendent spicy tang into the air, it is hard to think of this princely dish as leftovers.

And wonder of wonders, it is becoming something that its old boiled self could never have imagined — fashionable. Red flannel hash has been discovered and embraced by advocates of regional American cookery. It has gone “from the prosaic to the sublime,” according to James Villas in American Taste; “out of the roadhouse and into the serious kitchen,” proclaimed Cook’s magazine.

There are even some who maintain that red flannel hash should be made from scratch with bacon, beets, potatoes, and onions. But come on, admit it. That’s the sissy way. Anybody with backbone knows you’ve got to earn your hash by plowing through New England Boiled Dinner the night before.

Excerpt from “Let’s Give Boiled Dinner Its Due,” Yankee Magazine, April 1986.

Updated Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

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