Bloomsbury Food Library - United States: New England
Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia
Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia

Ken Albala

Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific and chair of the Food Studies MA program in San Francisco. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Encyclopedia entry


Geography of Food

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United States: New England

Page Range: 325–335


New England comprises six states in the northeastern corner of the United States: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The most densely populated New England state is Massachusetts, where more than 6 million of New England’s 14.3 million residents live—about 810 per square mile. The most sparsely populated states are Maine, with a total population of 1.3 million (41 per square mile), and Vermont, where there are about 620,000 residents (67 per square mile). Because Massachusetts played a central historical role in the move for independence from Great Britain, has a large, dense population, and is home to New England’s largest city, Boston, the state is often viewed as the focal point of New England and as emblematic of the Yankee personality: resourceful, independent, ingenious, and innovative.

The ancestral roots of New England frame its historic food traditions. From north to south the emphasis differs somewhat: Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine’s roots are predominantly French Canadian, English, Irish, and German; Massachusetts’s ancestors are Irish, Italian, French or French Canadian, and English; Rhode Island’s are the same as Massachusetts but include Hispanic and Portuguese ancestry; and Connecticut has more Italian ancestry than its northern neighbors, followed by Irish, English, German, and French or French Canadian ancestry.

Although New England remains largely Caucasian, its historical food culture is overlaid by and enriched with food cultures introduced by modern immigrants. Blacks/African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and Asians are growing populations in all the New England states. Massachusetts is home to many Central and South Americans as well, particularly Brazilians; Rhode Island has Liberian, Nigerian, and Ghanaian citizens; South Americans, Portuguese, and immigrants from former Soviet countries live in Connecticut. Supermarkets, grocery stores, and restaurants reflect this ethnic diversity.

New England has projected an energetic presence into American food culture and technology from its early days to modern times. The first cookbook authored by an American, American Cookery, was written by Amelia Simmons in 1796 and originally published in Hartford, Connecticut. In the 1960s, Massachusetts resident Julia Child brought French cooking into American homes with her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her public television cooking show, The French Chef. Many culinary tools were created in New England that embody the concept of Yankee ingenuity. For example, the first can opener was patented in 1858 by Ezra J. Warner of Waterbury, Connecticut. David Goodell of Antrim, New Hampshire, built a business on an improved apple parer that he invented in 1864. Turner Williams of Providence, Rhode Island, improved on the hand-operated egg beater by adding a second, interlocking beater in 1870, and his appliance became known as the Dover egg beater. Potato breeders in Vermont and Maine created hundreds of new potato varieties in the late 19th century. In the 1940s, following World War II, the home microwave oven was developed in Massachusetts as weapons manufacturer Raytheon looked to diversify its product portfolio. The Cuisinart food processor was invented in 1973 by Greenwich, Connecticut, native Carl G. Sontheimer.

The development of speedy global trade in all kinds of foodstuffs has flattened the distinctiveness and seasonality of everyday New England cookery in a broad sense by making a wide range of foods available year-round—similar to what any American can purchase in any local supermarket. Traditional New England foods that were once consumed on a daily basis due to the limitations of the seasons and of supply, such as baked beans, boiled puddings, salt pork and salted fish, breads and puddings made of cornmeal and rye flour, molasses, and seasonal fruits and vegetables, are now foods that are eaten by choice rather than necessity and that form the region’s culinary identity. Many native foodstuffs, dishes, and foodways distinguish New England from other regions in the United States. Festivals, tourism, holidays, and family traditions acknowledge, support, and celebrate regional, traditional, and seasonal foods such as blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, and apples; corn, squash, and beans; lobsters, clams, oysters, mussels, and cod; maple syrup; and cheddar cheese. The Thanksgiving feast is a keystone of American identity that is based on the colonialperiod New England harvest festival.

Food Culture Snapshot

In the 21st century, New Englanders spend more than half their food dollars, or about 10 percent of their net income, on meals prepared at home. They spend about 40 percent of their food dollars, or about 5 percent of their net income, on meals away from home.

Among foods purchased for home preparation, meats predominate, particularly poultry and beef. Following meats are fresh fruits and vegetables; cereals and bakery products; frozen prepared meals and other foods; canned and packaged soups; potato chips, nuts, and other snacks; condiments and seasonings, such as olives, pickles, relishes, sauces, and gravies; baking needs; other canned and packaged prepared foods, such as salads and desserts; and dairy products such as milk, cream, cheeses, sour cream, and buttermilk. Because of the time constraints imposed on families in which both parents are working, and even in single-person households where the priority is to spend less time in the kitchen and more time pursuing leisure activities, prepared meals are convenient, popular, and responsive to current trends and fashions in nutrition.

Like most Americans, New Englanders tend to do their shopping at supermarkets, and in urban areas they can shop online and have groceries delivered to their homes. Until the 1990s, independent grocers played a strong role alongside growing supermarket chains. But with the consolidation of supermarkets, independents and smaller grocers have a decreasing presence except in rural areas. In rural areas, independent grocers are more common.

As supermarkets penetrate a greater share of the market, at the same time New Englanders place increasing value on locally grown foods. Natural-foods supermarkets highlight organically grown, native, seasonal foods, as well as heirloom varieties of produce and breeds of poultry and livestock. Many shoppers seek organic produce, meat, poultry, baked goods, and dairy products at indoor and outdoor farmers’ markets that operate year-round, fueled by a strong regional organization of organic farmers and gardeners. Supermarkets that recognize the growing consumer interest in local and organic foods also carry items from such producers. Smaller boutique markets emphasize locally grown or manufactured foods, from fruits and vegetables to breads and other baked goods, meats, poultry, cheeses, wines, beers, and soft drinks.

New Englanders have grown more health conscious in the 21st century and less physically active than their forebears. Dietary choices reflect the trend in the consumption of smaller quantities of meat and fats and greater quantities of fruits, vegetables, and grains than the preceding generations consumed. A typical breakfast might be fruit with dry cereal and milk or yogurt, or eggs and toast. A commuter might pick up a bagel with cream cheese or—on the heavier side—a breakfast sandwich with egg, ham or sausage, and cheese on the way to work. Coffee, tea, or citrus juice is commonly consumed with breakfast.

Lunches are light, perhaps prepared at home and brought to work or sent with children to school: a sandwich or soup, perhaps with a salad, accompanied by a soft drink, juice, or water. Dinners typically include a roast or broiled meat, a starch, vegetables or a salad, and sometimes a dessert. Casseroles, pastas, and other one-dish meals are also common, often accompanied by a salad or vegetable. Prepared meals bought at a supermarket, either fresh or frozen, are also common fare. New Englanders tend to drink wine at home more than any other alcoholic beverage, and they enjoy tea and fruit juice as their primary nonalcoholic drinks.

Major Foodstuffs

The geography of New England provides a rich landscape for growing and harvesting foodstuffs. With more than 6,000 miles of tidal shoreline and U.S. fishing rights that extend 200 miles from shore, its waters yield abundant fish and shellfish. The inland countryside offers an environment that supports both large- and small-scale farming as well as having the climate and soils necessary to produce the forage needed for dairy farming. Although the growing season is short, the income per farmed acre for all six New England states is among the top five regions in the country.

Colonial and Revolutionary New England was largely rural, and its economy was rooted in agriculture as a source of capital to support its developing economy. Growing urban populations in Boston and Salem, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, provided markets for farm goods. The fish and shellfish industries played a large role in New England’s economy as well as on its dining tables. The codfish was so abundant in colonial times that it became a symbol of economic prosperity in New England. A gilded cod carved of wood has graced the State House in Boston since 1784, and the cape of Massachusetts is known as Cape Cod.

Contemporary New England agriculture and fishing are minor players on the national level, but the significant crops, fish, and shellfish of the region form a large part of the New England cultural and culinary identity. Its major crops—those for which its states are among the top 10 in acres harvested nationally—include wild blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, apples, pears, pumpkins and other squashes, and potatoes. It has the largest number of maple trees tapped for syrup in the United States and also maintains a large inventory of milk goats and milk cows. Maine is known for American lobster and is the location of the majority of American lobster landings in the United States. Oysters, soft-shell and hard-shell clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, and crab come from New England waters, as well as cod, haddock, bass, flounder, tuna, halibut, and many other fishes. Local and seasonal delicacies such as New England eggs and poultry, smelts, Maine shrimp, fiddlehead ferns, and wild or farmed mushrooms tend to stay in the region.

Maple sap is processed into maple syrup in the spring and is strongly identified with Vermont. Cow, goat, and sheep milks are made into butter, cheese, ice cream, and other dairy products by dozens of local and regional dairy processors. Berries are sold fresh in their summer season locally, as well as canned, frozen, baked into pies and muffins, and processed into jams and jellies. The apple harvest begins in early fall, when young, fresh apples are at their peak of flavor. As fall progresses, apples become cider and hard cider, jelly, and pies. Pumpkins are sold fresh and also processed, canned, and made into pies. From May to October, many varieties of potatoes are sold fresh or processed into frozen French fries and other potato products; beans are baked with molasses and pork and canned or sold dried for home cooking. Most fish and shellfish are exported, but regional demand and local festivals that celebrate fishing and shellfishing, such as the annual lobster festivals in Maine and New Hampshire, are helping to keep more of the catch local.


Classic New England cookery is known for being simple, spare, seasonally based, and not highly spiced. Everyday modern New England cooking is much the same. Modern refrigeration and preservation have reduced the need for emphasis on seasonality, but certain iconic New England dishes that are distinguished by their style of cookery remain ritual around the seasons. More ethnic influences are evident in some of the variations on classic New England dishes, particularly in southern New England.

New England kitchens typically differ from urban to suburban/rural in the amount of space available— urban kitchens tend to be smaller—but major appliances are the same for the most part. In some of the more rural kitchens, a wood-burning cookstove/oven may serve the triple purpose of cooking, heating the room, and heating water, in addition to an electric or gas stovetop and oven used solely for cooking. Suburban and rural kitchens, given the luxury of space, serve as a center of the household, where socializing and family activities other than cooking take place. Like most modern American kitchens, any New England kitchen will have a gas or electric stovetop and oven, a refrigerator, a sink, a dishwasher, and sometimes a garbage-disposal system in the sink. Microwave ovens, mixers, toasters and toaster ovens, food processors, slow cookers, and other small appliances are common.

Eating in modern homes can take place in both formal and informal rooms. Informal eating usually happens in the kitchen. When entertaining or having a special meal, a dining room that is separate from the kitchen is used. In smaller, urban apartments, often there is only one multipurpose dining area.

Cooking outdoors is very popular in New England in the summertime. Summer is the backdrop for the classic clambake or lobster bake that takes place on rocky shores, sandy beaches, or backyard grills. New Englanders were slow to adopt the clambake tradition from Native Americans, rejecting shellfish as “savage” food, but once they accepted the tradition, many variations cropped up. The basic menu comprises hard-shell or soft-shell clams, potatoes, onions, and corn, and it may include lobster and fish. Other additions reflect ethnic influences, such as Saugys in Rhode Island, which are veal-based wieners that are known for the “snap” of their natural casings; Italian sausage; linguica (Portuguese sausage); and, sometimes, tripe. Clambakes are most often community gatherings or celebrations—a favorite for Independence Day.

There are many ways to assemble a clambake. One method popular along the Maine coast, where the focus is more on lobsters but soft-shell clams are almost always included, is to build a fire on a rocky shore, in a U-shaped hollow in the rocks that is open on one end, and over which a thick metal sheet can be laid. When the metal is heated, rockweed is piled on top. Also known as bladder wrack, rockweed is an intertidal seaweed that holds a great deal of moisture and imparts a unique flavor to the bake. Live lobsters are laid down in the first layer, followed by a layer of rockweed, then soft-shell clams that have been placed in mesh bags, then another layer of rockweed, followed by corn on the cob. All is topped off with a final layer of rockweed and a sheet of wet canvas; then seawater is poured over the whole. A bakemaster watches over the bake, stokes the fire, and determines when the shellfish and corn are done. Eaten outdoors at tables covered with newspaper, the bake is often accompanied by hot rolls or bread and potatoes. Bowls of melted butter are set out for diners to dip lobster and clams into, and everyone eats with their hands, tossing the shells into common shell bowls. Blueberry pie, made with the tiny, sweet, wild blueberries that are native to Maine and served with vanilla ice cream, and strawberry shortcake, made with a biscuit-style shortcake and sugared native strawberries topped with whipped cream, are perennial favorites for dessert.

Fall and winter cookery features hearty one-pot meals, stews, and chowders, from the traditional Yankee pot roast or New England boiled dinner to fish or clam chowder or oyster stew. Scallops and tiny sweet Maine shrimp appear in the markets from December to February. A popular way to eat Maine shrimp is to bake them whole in a hot oven until just done, separate the head and tail, and suck the shrimp meat from the tail. Another winter delicacy is smelt: small, silver fish with sweet white flesh. Fished through holes bored in the ice at the mouths of tidal rivers from December until March, often by local fishermen in small fishing shacks set up on the ice, the smelts are cleaned, coated in a mixture of flour, cornmeal, salt, and pepper, and skillet-fried. Smelts can be finger food or eaten with utensils, either plain or with a squeeze of lemon or dip of tartar sauce.

In the springtime, fiddlehead ferns appear in local markets, along with dandelion greens, rhubarb, and morel mushrooms. Fiddleheads, which are the young coiled heads of the ostrich fern, are blanched or steamed and then tossed with butter. A particularly delicious spring treat is to sauté the fiddleheads with the morels of the season or other mushrooms.

Typical Meals

New England meal patterns follow the same sequence through the day as meals across the United States: breakfast, which is typically a light morning meal; lunch at midday, which again tends to be on the lighter side; and dinner, the main meal of the day and also the heaviest. People who do physically demanding work are likely to consume heavier breakfasts and lunches than people who work in a more sedentary environment.

Meat, potatoes, and a vegetable or vegetables have long characterized the typical New England main meal. Usually the three elements are cooked separately, as in the New England boiled dinner of corned beef, potatoes, carrots, and turnips. Sometimes they are cooked together, as in a Yankee pot roast.

It is useful to look at a typical day’s meals in the early 19th century to note both the departures in modern eating as well as some of the traces of meals and foodways from the past that are carried into the present. Compared to the meals of preindustrial New England, contemporary meals are smaller and simpler. For example, an early 19th-century farmer’s breakfast during the working week might include meats, such as sausages, ham, souse (pickled pig’s ears, snouts, cheeks, and feet), or fried pork, and eggs, or pork and apples with a milk gravy, served with boiled potatoes. Salt mackerel and shad might be soaked overnight and then boiled. Baked goods served could include johnnycake (cornmeal and water) or “rye and Indian” bread made from rye flour and cornmeal, and possibly pie.

In the 21st century, a weekend breakfast or brunch—a combination of breakfast and lunch— might be on the heavier side: a breakfast meat, eggs, toasted bread, biscuits or pancakes, and fish cakes. Brunch is more a meal to be enjoyed at leisure and for the pleasure of eating than a practical meal, and it recalls the abundance of a farm breakfast. A typical weekday breakfast would be lighter, more expedient, and pragmatic, as already described: fruit with dry cereal and milk or yogurt, or eggs and toast. A commuter might pick up a bagel with cream cheese or—on the heavier side—a breakfast sandwich with egg, ham or sausage, and cheese on the way to work.

The 19th-century midday meal was known as dinner, and it was usually the big meal of the day and on Sundays could be a time for guests to visit and join in. The meal usually consisted of a roast, which was turned on a spit in front of the fire and could be tended by a child if necessary. Pies were frequent fare—baked in quantity in wintertime and frozen in a cold room, then thawed as needed for dinner. Weekday dinners might consist of boiled corned beef and pork with a savory pudding and seasonal vegetables as well as cellared vegetables such as turnips, cabbage, pumpkins, and squashes.

Lunch is the modern New England midday meal. Like breakfast, it can be a bigger, more lavish affair on weekends as a brunch. During the workweek, it is normally a lighter meal consisting of a sandwich, a soup, or a salad, possibly composed of leftovers from the previous evening’s meal, and perhaps a piece of fruit or other sweet for dessert.

Supper was the 19th-century evening meal, comprising the leftovers from dinner, along with such dishes as hasty pudding (made of cornmeal and water) with milk or molasses, brown bread and milk with stewed pumpkin, baked apples, berries when in season, pie, gingerbreads, and custards. Often, a pot of baked beans would be started on Saturday to eat the next day on the Sabbath.

Dinner is the modern evening meal and is the main meal of the day: a meat, a starch, and vegetables or a salad. Sunday dinner is usually the most elaborate of the week—a special roast meat or fowl—and for many the leftovers from Sunday become Monday’s dinner. Dessert is not as common a coda to the evening meal as it once was and is often served only on special occasions. Baked beans, often called Boston baked beans because of their close identification with Boston, are still widely eaten today.

Yankee Pot Roast

Season a 4-pound top sirloin roast generously with salt and pepper. Heat some oil, bacon drippings, or other fat in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, and brown the roast on all sides. Pour a quart of boiling water over it and cover closely. Simmer as gently as possible for 2 hours, or until the roast is tender. Add peeled onions, carrots, turnips, and potatoes, cut into large pieces. Cook till the vegetables are tender; then remove the meat and vegetables from the pan and thicken the cooking liquid with 2 tablespoons of flour mixed smoothly with a little cold water. If necessary add more water while the roast is cooking so that there will be enough sauce to cover the vegetables.

Boston Baked Beans

The first published recipe for baked beans appeared in 1829 in The Frugal Housewife, by Lydia Maria Child, and called simply for a pound of pork to a quart of beans with a sprinkling of pepper and nothing more. The following is a more flavorful recipe for Boston baked beans.

Rinse and pick over 1 pound of great northern or white navy beans. Soak in cold water overnight, then place the beans and soaking liquid in a large cooking pot. Simmer the beans until the skins burst when you blow on them—15 minutes or longer. Then place the beans in an earthenware baked bean pot, leaving the liquid simmering on the stovetop. Press a whole, peeled onion into the beans. Score deeply a ¼-pound piece of salt pork, and press it into the beans over the onion. Mix together ½ cup molasses, 1 teaspoon dry mustard, and ½ teaspoon each of salt and ground black pepper. Pour over the beans, then pour in the simmering water, adding more if necessary to cover. Put the lid on the pot, and bake in a preheated 250°F oven for 5 hours or until the beans are tender and cooked through. Baked beans are traditionally served with brown bread.

Eating Out

There is a long history of eating out in New England. The ordinaries, taverns, and public houses of the 17th–19th centuries are the earliest examples of Americans eating away from home in a setting other than that of friends or family. Taverns were located on the owner’s property, often next to the town’s meetinghouse. In their earliest days they were meant to serve residents primarily, and then travelers. A typical tavern would provide food, drink, lodging, and space for horses, carts, and often livestock. The tavern or public house was a place of entertainment, social interaction, and business transactions for local residents, and a welcome stopping point for those bringing produce or livestock to market and for people traveling by stagecoach.

Early tavern fare was not known to be particularly good or abundant, but as the relationship of the tavern became more intertwined with the food trade, which was becoming more entwined with the alcohol trade, the food improved. Travelers could stop for a meal or a drink, or stay for lodging as well. Meals were served at communal tables and at appointed times. Dining rooms were separate from the taprooms where alcohol was served, and the better taverns served a breakfast that often included steaks, fish, eggs, cakes, and tea or coffee. Smaller taverns or country taverns might include pies, puddings, and cider at breakfast. Dinner was served in the afternoon and was a similar menu to breakfast. Supper was the evening meal, again with the table laid similarly to breakfast, but including cold fowl, ham, and other meats. Cider, ale, and distilled spirits, particularly rum, were served. As the urban landscape developed, taverns became hotels with a greater emphasis on finer dining and decor.

The American diner had its start in Providence, Rhode Island, in the early 1870s as a horse-drawn, mobile freight wagon that provided take-out sandwiches, pies, hot meals, and coffee outside the offices of the Providence Journal after restaurants had closed for the night. An entrepreneur in Worcester, Massachusetts, improved on the freight wagons by creating wagons with indoor seating and, later, indoor cooking that catered to late-night workers and public events. The improved diners added items such as baked beans, hamburgers, and clam chowder to their menus. By the early 20th century, public health and safety concerns necessitated that the mobile wagons become set in permanent locations, and by 1940 the classic stainless steel diner had been developed. Diners might serve New England fare, or, if situated in an ethnic neighborhood, the menu would reflect the local tastes. Many diners survive from their heyday, and they continue to be popular casual eating-out destinations today.

In modern New England, a large diversity of options exist for eating out, from diners, carryouts, and clam shacks to upscale restaurants serving traditional New England fare, restaurants serving modern interpretations of traditional dishes, and a large diversity of ethnic eateries, from the very informal to very upscale.

Though dining-out options are myriad, residents of the Northeast comprise the smallest market share of Americans who do eat out, and when they do, it is most likely to be for dinner at a full-service restaurant. Tourism fuels a healthy restaurant economy, and when visitors come to New England, they look for traditional New England fare, particularly seafood.

Informal clam shacks and lobster shacks abound along the coastal areas, where diners can enjoy a shore dinner of lobster, steamed soft-shell clams, and corn on the cob; deep-fried seafood of all kinds including scallops, shrimp, oysters, and particularly clams; stuffed clams or stuffies, which are large hard-shell clams (quahogs) that are chopped, mixed with breadcrumbs and herbs, and stuffed back into the shells and baked—a Rhode Island specialty that can also be embellished with chorizo for a Portuguese touch; or lobster rolls and crab rolls, in which the lobster or crabmeat is mixed with a little mayonnaise and served on a toasted New England–style hot dog bun. Chowders can be “clear” clam chowder, a Rhode Island specialty that is not enriched with cream, or creamy chowder, which is common from Massachusetts north. Chowders can also be tomato-based, seen most often south of the “chowder line” in Connecticut, where clear or creamy New England clam chowder becomes tomatoey Manhattan clam chowder. Shacks usually offer hard ice cream, soft-serve ice cream, and various kinds of ice cream drinks that are known variously as milk shakes (Connecticut), frappés (Maine, Massachusetts), or cabinets (Rhode Island). Frozen lemonade—a slushy lemon drink of Italian origin—and coffee milk—milk with sweet coffee syrup—are popular treats in Rhode Island.

Diner food often includes deep-fried fish and shellfish, but diners round out their offerings with other traditional New England foods such as pickled tripe, roast turkey with cranberry sauce and mashed potato es, Yankee pot roast, and New England boiled dinner. Oyster stew, lobster stew and lobster bisque, and clam, fish, or corn chowder are also diner staples. Desserts run the traditional gamut, especially including pies of all kinds, which feature New England fruits and vegetables in season such as strawberries, rhubarb, blueberries, apples, raspberries, and pumpkin. Indian pudding, a dessert made of milk, cornmeal, and molasses that dates back to colonial times, is another popular item.

New England dishes are showcased in upscale settings as well. Locke-Ober restaurant in Boston, which has been in operation since the 1870s, offers such classics as lobster stew, lobster bisque, and clams casino. Clams casino—an elegant version of the stuffie composed of tiny cherrystone clamshells stuffed with a mixture of clam meat, breadcrumbs, bacon, onions, and bell peppers—was supposed to have been created in the early 20th century by the Little Casino in Narragansett, Rhode Island. Locke-Ober and many other restaurants throughout the six New England states use native New England ingredients and traditional recipes in innovative ways as well, sometimes putting a new spin on an older recipe or creating a recipe that folds a native ingredient, such as lobster, into a nonnative form, such as an Asian spring roll.

New England’s native foodstuffs have often had a regional identity appended to them on menus or in markets that reflects a pride of place and skill in growing or manufacturing foods and food products. As the European concept of terroir— the influence of local growing conditions on the flavor of produce— has spread and combined with New England’s pride in its products, native foodstuffs are increasingly and more specifically identified with their place of origin. Fish and shellfish are described in terms of where they are harvested, so diners or shoppers will often see “Point Judith” (Rhode Island) describing their calamari or “Duxbury” or “Wellfleet” (Massachusetts) or “Damariscotta River” (Maine) and dozens of other place-names describing their oysters. Produce of all kinds is often described by the name of the area where it was grown—for example, Roxbury Russet, Newton Pippin, and Rhode Island Greening apples. Cheeses are not simply varieties such as cheddar or chèvre, they are from specific dairies or creameries, often by one of the scores of licensed artisanal cheese makers in New England, particularly Vermont.

Besides traditional New England fare, there are many ethnic restaurants in New England, particularly in the southern states and more urban areas where immigrants are more concentrated. Italian, Portuguese, Caribbean, Brazilian, Mexican, Asian, African, and other ethnic eateries abound.


Scrub 12 live quahogs and rinse in cold water to remove grit. Bring a couple of inches of water to boil in a large pot, add the quahogs, and simmer covered for about 5 minutes, or until the clams open. Set clams aside to cool. Reserve the steaming liquid. Finely mince a quarter of an onion, a stalk of celery, 2 cloves of garlic, and half a bell pepper. Sauté in olive oil with a big pinch of dried thyme until tender. Stir in 1½ to 2 cups of dried breadcrumbs and transfer to a large bowl.

Remove the quahog meat from the shells, and reserve the shells. Check for grit and dip into reserved steaming liquid to rinse if necessary. Chop roughly and add to vegetable and breadcrumb mixture, along with a handful of finely chopped parsley, the juice of half a lemon, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly, adding 1 beaten egg and clam juice or strained steaming liquid as needed to moisten the mixture. Heat oven to 425°F. Spoon the stuffing mixture into the shells and press it flat. Arrange the stuffed shells on a baking sheet, and bake for about 15 minutes until browned. Serve with lemon wedges.

Special Occasions

The iconic American holidays of Independence Day and Thanksgiving spring from New England history. Many of the foods and rituals surrounding the celebration of these holidays are still in practice today.

A secular, patriotic, and publicly celebrated holiday, Independence Day, or the Fourth of July, does not have a set feast menu associated with it, though drinking alcoholic beverages has always been associated with the Fourth. Toward the beginning of the 19th century, some towns began to hold public dinners featuring seasonal foods following the public speeches, parades, music, and other events of the day, and before the fireworks that capped the celebration. Picnics became very popular in the mid-19th century, either at home and eaten outdoors or packed up to take to a pretty spot. Cold meats, pickles, cheese, olives, bread, and pies were popular packable fare for a Fourth of July picnic, much as they are today. Later in the 19th century, whole poached salmon served with peas and new potatoes, or lamb with peas, appeared on celebratory menus, as did roast pig, clambakes, and chowders. Salmon, peas, and potatoes are the most iconic of New England Independence Day feasts.

The modern Thanksgiving celebration is based, at least in spirit, on a “harvest home” feast that was held on the occasion of bringing the last of the harvest home. The popular belief is that the first Thanksgiving occurred at Plymouth in 1621. The association is thanks to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, who was the editor of Godey’s Ladies’ Book. Hale campaigned for many years to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday and finally succeeded in 1863 when she persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to proclaim the last Thursday of November as a day of thanks. In 1865 she wrote and published an editorial in Godey’s that connected the events at Plymouth in 1621 with the first Thanksgiving holiday, and with it she captured the popular imagination.

The basic Thanksgiving menu that Americans cook up in their homes each November is composed of foods that are considered native to America, and are also native to New England. Roast turkey is the main course, and it is such a strong symbol that vegetarian substitutes made of tofu or wheat gluten are shaped to look like a turkey. Stuffing, often with oysters or chestnuts; cranberry sauce or relish; potatoes, usually mashed and served with gravy; and pumpkin, apple, or mincemeat pie for dessert are the classic elements of a modern Thanksgiving feast.

In the springtime, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire have sugaring-off parties to celebrate the end of maple syrup season. The centerpiece of the party is sugar on snow, maple syrup that is boiled to 230 degrees and poured in thin ribbons over bowls of snow, where it firms to a caramel-like consistency. The intensely sweet maple candy is served with sour pickles, which can be eaten alternately with the candy to cut through its sweetness. Raised doughnuts are traditionally served alongside.

In southern New England, saint’s day feasts are held from June to October and feature Italian American food that is associated with immigrants from various regions of Italy. One feast of note is the Fisherman’s Feast in Boston, established in the early 20th century. Sicilian fishermen pay respect to Madonna del Soccoroso (Our Lady of Help) and bless the fishing waters. The streets are filled with people, music, and vendors selling Italian goods and souvenirs as well as Italian sausages, calamari, pizza, pasta, and other Italian and Italian American treats.

Diet and Health

Research has established that a lack of physical activity coupled with unhealthy eating patterns contributes to obesity and a number of chronic diseases, including some cancers, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Compared with people who consume a diet with only small amounts of fruits and vegetables, those who eat more generous amounts as part of a healthful diet are likely to have reduced risk of chronic diseases.

Americans in general have been growing heavier over the last several decades, which can be viewed in part as a trend related to living in an affluent and well-nourished society. Changes in technology have allowed a more sedentary lifestyle; in most families, both parents usually work, and the proliferation of fast food and other convenience foods, which tend to be high in fat and simple carbohydrates, has also contributed to the increasing size of the American waistline.

Compared with other Americans, New England residents are among the least obese; relatively few have a body mass index, or BMI, of greater than 30. Obesity trends upward from south to north. New Englanders struggle more with overweight—a body mass index of 25–29.9. Here, the trend is reversed from north to south, with more overweight people in southern New England. The total population who are either overweight or obese is about 60 percent. Finally, about 40 percent of New Englanders are neither underweight nor overweight.

The optimal diet for maintaining good health, as established by governmental and independent studies, includes at least five servings of vegetables and fruits per day. While only about 30 percent of Americans report consuming the recommended amount, the New England states are in the top 20 of those who do so. Exercise is also a key component of good health. About 20 percent of New Englanders are considered to be at risk for health problems due to a lack of physical activity.

In recent years, medical practice in the United States is placing a greater emphasis on treating disease by prescribing lifestyle changes in diet and exercise as an adjunct to medication and other therapies. Complementary and alternative medicines are becoming more integrated into traditional medical practice. Such medicines and therapies include homeopathy and herbal medicines, mind-body balancing practices (such as yoga, meditation, or tai chi classes), acupuncture, massage and relaxation techniques, and energy healing therapies. The National Institute of Health created the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 1999 to advance research on such therapies and make authoritative information available to the public.

Further Reading

Bureau of Labor Statistics. Consumer Expenditure Survey: Current Expenditure Tables, Region of Residence , 2008.

Carlisle, Nancy, and Melinda Talbot, with Jennifer Pustz. America’s Kitchens . Boston: Historic New England, 2008.

Center for Disease Control, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.” .

Feintuch, Burt, and David H. Watters, eds. The Encyclopedia of New England . Princeton, NJ: Yale University Press, 2005.

Gabaccia, R. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Gutman, J. S. American Diner: Then and Now . Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Long, M. Regional American Food Culture . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Lukas, Paul. “The Big Flavors of Little Rhode Island.” New York Times , November 13, 2002.

Maine Folklife Center. “Foodways.” .

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. .

McWilliams, James. A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America . New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Mitchell, Valentine. It’s an Old New England Custom . New York: Vanguard Press, 1946.

Morse, Earle. Stage Coach and Tavern Days . New York: Macmillan, 1900.

National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Fisheries Science Center. “Brief History of the Groundfishing Industry of New England.” .

Neustadt, Kathy. Clambake: A History and Celebration of an American Tradition . Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Oliver, L. Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Food, at Sea and Ashore, in the Nineteenth Century . Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport Museum, 1995.

Smith, Andrew. Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine . New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Stavely, Keith, and Kathleen Fitzgerald. America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Thorne, John, with Matt Lewis Thorne. Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots . New York: North Point Press, 1998.