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America's Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking

From baked beans to apple cider, from clam chowder to pumpkin pie, Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald’s culinary history reveals the complex and colorful origins of New England foods and cookery. Featuring hosts of stories and recipes derived from generations of New Englanders of all ethnicities, America’s Founding Food chronicles the region’s cuisine, from the English settlers’ first encounter with Indian corn in the early seventeenth century to the nostalgic marketing of New England dishes in the first half of the twentieth century.

Focusing on the traditional foods of the region -- including beans and pumpkins, seafood, meats, baked goods, and beverages such as cider, rum, tea, and coffee -- the authors show how New Englanders procured, preserved, and prepared their sustaining dishes. Placing the New England culinary experience in the broader context of British and American history and culture, Stavely and Fitzgerald demonstrate the importance of New England’s foods to the formation of American identity, while dispelling some of the "fakelore" often arising from patriotic sentiment.

Awarded a 2005 Best of the Best from University Presses selection by a panel of public and academic librarians for the American Association of University Presses.


"If anyone doubts that culinary and cultural history are one, or doubts that cookbooks are documents rich in revelation, let them read this book. Weaving a narrative from the contradictory voices of the past, the authors investigate the cooking of New England in a way that re-evaluates the founding of America."

--Betty Fussell

"This is a serious book for serious cooks. It should be on the shelf of every public library and school library in New England. Every visitor to New England should read it on the plane going home to learn the amazing stories behind the region's hearty chowders, boiled lobsters, Boston baked beans, and broiled scrod."

--Joseph Carlin

"A revealing look at the origins of New England food and the evolution of some of its best-known dishes. Particularly fascinating are the many first-hand accounts of the preparation and the significance of such regional specialties as baked beans, dried cod, clambakes, and rum flips as well as dishes for special occasions, such as the minister's wood-spell and election cakes. We see how social status was so often measured by the foods that were eaten and how fashions changed with the evolving history of New England."

--Judith Jones

"Much that has been written about New England culinary history has been largely based on culinary fakelore invented in modern times. Stavely and Fitzgerald pull together a vast array of research that corrects many of these misconceptions and offers the best evidence of what and how early New Englanders ate and how this changed over three hundred years. America's Founding Food will become a standard work in culinary history."

--Andrew F. Smith

"The authors' careful, scholarly account emphasizes social change and its influence on gastronomy."

--Paul Freedman, Times Literary Supplement

"Stavely and Fitzgerald . . . provide a thoroughly researched, well-referenced, and fluently written history of New England cooking . . . highly recommended."

--Jonathan M. Deutsch, Choice

"By the imaginative use of such sources as cookbooks, fiction, and travel literature as well as such traditional historical documents as letters and diaries, Stavely and Fitzgerald have provided us with an informative and reliable account of the story of New England cooking."

--Barbara Haber, New England Quarterly

"The most significant accomplishment of America's Founding Food is the truly impressive collection of lively and illuminating primary source accounts. The book is worth reading for this alone."

--Kathleen Curtin, Common-place

"America's Founding Food makes a convincing argument that a very self-conscious New England . . . set in the 1800s a foodways pattern much copied across the country."

--Sandra Oliver, Gastronomica

"America's Founding Food will stand as a reference for another generation for anyone writing about New England food history."

--Mark H. Zanger, Radcliffe Culinary Times

"America's Founding Food tells . . . interesting stories for the . . . foods it features. For each of them, readers will find complicated histories that sometimes crisscross centuries and continents, and that involve politics, personal tastes, and the urges of some individuals and groups to develop national and historical identities. . . . to read this book as a sort of dictionary of the histories of New England foods is a joyful experience. . . . One can . . . delve into the fascinating backgrounds of each of the foods. The authors' careful research and compilation facilitate this research and reading. All of these factors make America's Founding Food a very welcome addition to the history of food, and foods, in America."

--Trudy Eden, H-Net

From the Introduction

Like the dusty spinning wheel or the unfired hearth in one of New England's many colonial house museums, the historic foods of the region by and large enter our consciousness as worthy of remembrance and reverence, but not as something we would expect to see in our own homes today. For some, especially those with ancestral connections to the region and its Puritan founders or Yankee farmers, the thought of baked beans, served "in the pot, as the Pilgrims did," carries with it warm familial associations that override mere considerations of how the food tastes. For others with fewer direct connections to the New England past, patriotic sentiment nevertheless flavors the beans. But for many, understanding the impulse to glorify our American roots simply does not translate into understanding the gustatory appeal of the plain dishes that typify New England cooking. . . .

Our great annual American feast, Thanksgiving, perhaps provides the best example of the dual approaches to that part of our national cuisine based on historic New England cooking. On the one hand, the nation still celebrates the day at the family table with roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, all foods long associated with the region. On the other hand, not many of us serve these foods on other days of the year, although their cost is well within most family budgets.

But this distance between the tastes of our day and the historic cuisine of New England not only provides an opportunity to partake of a culinary form of patriotism once a year. It also allows us to think dispassionately about the origins and meaning of foods that have become museum pieces but that once dominated American tastes. Throughout this book, we ask such questions as: Why these particular dishes? Why baked beans, pumpkins, johnny cakes, and boiled cod? What did they taste like when they first came from the colonial bake oven or fireplace? Did ways of making them change over time, given changes in available foodstuffs and cooking equipment? But along with these questions, we also ask: What did these foods mean to those who cooked them, wrote about them, and elevated such culinary wallflowers to virtually canonical status?

The answers to these questions involve practical considerations, such as what grew well and what didn't in New England soil, what sold well in the expanding markets of Europe and the Caribbean, and what was best suited to the kitchen conditions of the colonial and nineteenth-century home. But to paint a full picture of the region's culinary contribution also requires a close look at the society in which the foods were prepared and consumed. What, for instance, most appealed to Anglo-American appetites, and why? What did the colonists think about eating what were in essence the same foods as those consumed by their "savage" neighbors? And in connection with a later period, why have some of the simplest and plainest dishes in the New England culinary repertoire come to be considered definitive of it? This question has particularly intrigued us, in that the period in which this definition of New England cooking was emerging -- the later nineteenth century -- was also the period in which economic development and increasing wealth made a greater variety of foods more widely available. Just when edible luxuries were brought within more people's reach, the foods long associated with necessity began to be celebrated. How come?