With the big game right around the corner, we invited Boston Globe food editor Sheryl Julian to tell us how the food scene in Boston reflects the local culture there. Our food writer, Bethany Jean Clement, gave her take on the same subject for Seattle, which will run in the Globe.
A taste of New England from the land of the dreaded Patriots
By Sheryl Julian
Boston Globe food editor
Seattle 12th Man, we know what you’re picturing when you imagine a New England Patriots fan. We’re loud (though you’re the loudest fans of all), fanatic (but you win the face-paint award), and some say we’re cheaters (Spygate, Deflategate — our Gates make more headlines than yours at the moment). But we’re also generous — we let you have Pete Carroll, didn’t we?
You’ve probably seen the team insignia, a head with an early American hat and a star in front, called “the Flying Elvis” by locals. And surely you’ve heard about tailgating outside Gillette Stadium, even in blizzards, and the Gronk family party bus, with Papa Gronk’s line, “We live every day to the fullest,” and more food and drink than you can imagine.
But if you really want to understand New Englanders, you have to know about their scrappy beginnings as Puritans, the lean cold winters on a monotonous diet of beans and bits of pork strong with smoke because they were stored inside the chimney. Fishermen and families who eventually settled coastal cities and towns lived on chowders thickened with crumbled hardtack, a kind of wheat cracker that lasted forever.
So you could never call us prissy. And today, even with all the farm-to-table talk and a huge locavore movement, comfort food is the same working-class cuisine we were raised on. That still means baked beans, though rarely cold bean sandwiches the following morning, something people once ate to stretch the food. And chowders, creamy versions with plenty of potatoes, served at every fish shack anywhere near the ocean. And fish cakes, once made with salt cod, then fresh cod, and now because cod is fished out, with species like hake and pollock. For breakfast, born-and-bred Bostonians ate baked beans and cod cakes with eggs.
One prized dish here, so quirky you probably have to be a New Englander to appreciate it, is the lobster roll. We begin with fine local lobsters, then mix the meat with mayonnaise (Hellman’s preferred) and maybe a spoonful of celery. That’s tucked into a top-loading soft-white hot dog roll that has been browned and crisped on the kind of griddle you’d use to make pancakes. When celebrity chefs change the formula to use their own homemade rolls, or God forbid, brioche, there’s an outcry.
We also have a tradition of steamers (that’s pronounced steam-ahs, and it’s all I’ll say about the way we talk). These are small soft-shell clams, sometimes called longnecks, which go into a pot with a little water, steam for a few minutes, and are served with the cooking liquid and a bowl of melted butter. A seafood dish might come with a big square of golden cornbread sweet enough that outsiders sometimes call it cake.
A pot of beef and vegetables popular all over is New England boiled dinner, and it’s essentially a pot roast simmered in water with lots of root vegetables. Because we’re frugal cooks, this too has another life the following day as Red Flannel Hash, in which all the ingredients are finely chopped with boiled beets, browned in a skillet till crispy, and topped with a poached egg.
One prized dessert is a cake with a pie name. Boston cream pie is a two-layer vanilla cake sandwiched with custard and topped with chocolate. Legend has it that the cake was probably once cooked in a pie pan because those tins were more common.
In the late 19th century, a wave of immigration started, first with the Irish, then Italians, who came mostly from the southern part of the country and Sicily, Jews from Eastern Europe, Armenians, and more recently, Latin Americans and South Asians. All introduced their cuisines and unusual ingredients to a suspicious population, who were hard to win over.
But whatever the ethnicity, on Super Bowl Sunday, the party fare in Boston is probably the same as it is in Seattle and around the country — chili, wings, dips and other high-fidelity tastes. And even though it’s winter here and houses are sealed tight against the cold, when the Pats score you can hear the cheers up and down the streets.
Luckily musket fire is confined to the End Zone Militia at Gillette Stadium.
In Seahawks Central, we embrace nature, nerds and new ventures
By Bethany Jean Clement
Seattle Times food writer
To define Seattle at all is a tall order. Right now, we’re involved in an expansive, sometimes contentious civic debate about who we are — in newspaper articles and online threads, in bars and cafes. With Super Bowl XLIX imminent, let me explain Seattle — by way of its food — to you, Boston, the city of baked beans.
Seattle contains multitudes, more and more every day. There’s much discussion here of “newcomers,” of who they are and what they mean, of skyrocketing rents, of terrible traffic, of cultural shifts, of cold “natives.”
The real natives, of course, ate Chinook, coho and sockeye salmon, and steelhead trout. Stinging nettles, the curly tips of fiddlehead ferns, weirdly elongated razor clams, and hugely phallic geoducks are our delicacies now.
We take credit for the improbable greatness, the objective superiority of our sweet Dungeness crab and lush local oysters, made sweeter and lusher by our frigid waters. In reality, we’re just lucky to be here, lucky we didn’t stop and stay somewhere else.
In the middle of the night, in the rain, on the Seattle waterfront, you’ll see weirdos shining bright lights into the cold, clear water, jigging for squid. Along the roadsides in the summertime, you’ll see us infiltrating thorny, insane tangles of blackberries, only to make jam that is undeniably too seedy.
Blackberries, however, aren’t native, either. They’re a freaky invasive plant that took root here and won’t let go.
Our local restaurant heroes serve these foods in season (of course), in airy, well-appointed, buoyantly busy places. They live these foods: James Beard-award nominated chef Renee Erickson pulls crab pots into a boat on sparkling Puget Sound. Chef Matt Dillon, who has a Beard (plus a beard), keeps bees on nearby, verdant Vashon Island. Those who cannot fish or forage, but can afford to pay for others to do so, have dining rooms all over Seattle, usually equipped with the glowing hearth of a wood-fired oven.
This part of the food life here is relatively young, but growing absurdly fast: Seattle is fifth in the number of full-service restaurants per capita in the country. We’ve got 125-plus Thai places. (We only had one in 1981, but now Thai food is more popular than pizza here, and we’ve got four times as many Thai restaurants as you do, Boston.) And countless places for pho, the Vietnamese rice-noodle marvel: The favorite food of a local guy called Macklemore, it has arguably become Seattle’s favorite soup (supplanting clam chowder, which we like New England style — thanks for that).
Sir Mix-A-Lot extolled the virtues of Dick’s Drive-In, and that’s still where we get our late-night burgers and perfect, salty, floppy fries served in a paper envelope. From what is remembered of the grunge era, everyone just drank Rainier beer. Jimi Hendrix ate only acid.
The biggest Seattle restaurant story of all time (so far) is, oddly, the sudden shutdown of a tiny Cuban sandwich shop called Paseo this past fall. The city’s favorite (and messiest) sandwich, the Caribbean roast pork loaded with caramelized onions and secret-recipe aioli, was seemingly lost forever.
There were allegations that the owner had underpaid and mistreated workers, then a declaration of bankruptcy. People lit candles in front of the store. Then, suddenly, Seattle’s sandwich nightmare was over: A new owner came to the rescue, rehired the workers and reopened Paseo, to what might seem like inordinate citywide rejoicing. We just love that sandwich.
Speaking of workers, we voted to give everyone paid sick time (reducing sneezing in salads) and a $15-an-hour minimum wage. And we’ve got legal pot. When it comes to bite-sized THC chocolate-chip cookies (like those from local baker SPOT), eating dessert first is the new Seattle way. We’re jumping over instead of trying to push through.
Sure, for every locavore lovingly sautéing tricolor chard, there’s a bunch of people staring at a big or small screen, shoveling food into their collective face from a new delivery dot-com. But, then, former Microsoft nerd Nathan Myhrvold created his six-volume, 2,438-page “Modernist Cuisine.” And former Microsoft nerd Wassef Haroun and his wife, Racha, created their Syrian, Lebanese and Persian restaurant Mamnoon, making food an ambassador for their culture.
It nearly goes without saying we have the best coffee, and an unmatched amount of excellent local beer. We’ve got distilleries proliferating unbelievably, making delicious local booze.
Then there’s the wine, lots of it made right here — the grapes come from over the mountains (the ones to the east; we’ve got majestic peaks in all directions). So do Washington’s famous apples, which make crisp-tasting, dangerously drinkable cider. Seattle’s all-cider bar, Capitol Cider, serves all-gluten-free food; we’re tolerant of the gluten-intolerant.
In this city, some of us make magic: flying machines, virtual stores where you can get virtually anything, computers and holograms. Some of us ride bikes, do yoga, meditate. As a city, we still love books. We’re freaks and we’re geeks, and we don’t care.
We’re Sasquatch. We’re Beast Mode. We’re the loudest ever. We’re a silent, soaring hawk of the sea. (They’re ospreys, a bird of prey. They eat fish.)
We came all this way; we’ve got no desire to be defined. We were losers for a long time. It only makes the winning taste more sweet.
This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Renee Erickson is a James Beard award nominee.