New England Boiled Dinner
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.