The husband-wife team Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald has written the history of New England through the region’s everyday food, an interest they come by honestly. Stavely is a scholar who descends from early New England settlers and has written about Puritan influences on American culture. Fitzgerald is a public librarian and college chaplain who was raised in a New England Irish-Catholic household and has had a long-standing curiosity about food traditions. “We had baked beans on Saturday night and ate cod cakes, chowders, and lobsters,” she says. “I became interested in why we all in New England were influenced by this.
“There were cuisines of ethnic groups — Italian food, Chinese food — and then there was just food. But actually it was a cuisine. It was New England food,” she adds. Together the pair has researched and written two books, “Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England” and “America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking,” that give armchair cooks a taste of New England heritage from the Puritan days through more recent times. The two split their time between Cambridge and Jamestown, R.I.
Q. Where did you start researching the history of New England food?
Fitzgerald: There’s actually a lot in the Puritan record about food. We also looked at diaries and manuscript recipe books that were published and sold in New England.
Stavely: You might think of cookbooks as the thing you mainly look at. But when you start looking for food in other places, even novels, you find tons of material.
Q. How did the tradition of community suppers begin in New England?
Stavely: We can make some pretty good inferences. There was a tradition in Congregationalist churches of Massachusetts and Connecticut of two Sunday services throughout the Colonial period. People were expected to attend both of them. Between the two, people would usually come prepared with what were essentially picnics. They would eat informally between the services, outdoors if the weather would permit.
Q. When did it become more formalized?
Stavely: After the Civil War, in the era of industrialization and heavy immigration, it was felt that these traditions were slipping away. We strongly suspect that this custom of community suppers on Sunday nights was a response to feeling that there wasn’t enough sense of community with all the changes that were taking place in society as a whole.
Fitzgerald: People wanted to evoke the past. It was equal parts nostalgia and remembrance of foods that they saw as plainer than the fancy stuff of the Gilded Age diet. Community cookbooks and community suppers were often fund-raisers for Civil War veterans and veterans’ widows. They were also evoking this vaunted New England way of life that is community-based and simpler. New England Puritans and then the Congregationalists really emphasized keeping the Sabbath from sundown on Saturday through Sunday evening. So if you have communally prepared food that is ready, then you don’t have to do work on the Sabbath.
Q. How did boiled lobster become a New England summer dish?
Fitzgerald: There was a big lobster canning industry in Maine and the Canadian Maritimes. By the end of the 19th century there had been a lot of bad press about dirty conditions in canning factories, so people were put off of canned lobster. At the same time, tourism started to become the fad, so eating lobster in the summer in areas you traveled to was beginning.
Stavely: The idea that the only proper way to eat lobster is live boiled was quite a recent idea.
Fitzgerald: Yankee roots were a very big thing for people who had to resettle in the Midwest to farm. So coming back to New England was almost like a pilgrimage in the summer.
Q. When did lobster rolls begin to appear?
Stavely: We have a recipe in our book from 1832 from Lydia Maria Child’s “American Frugal Housewife” which is almost exactly like what you put inside a lobster roll nowadays.
Fitzgerald: She’s presenting lobster salad as clearly something new, as is chicken salad. In the lobster, she chops up hard lettuce. But the idea that it goes in a hot dog roll is an early-20th-century idea.
Stavely: They figured out that having food that you can walk around with was
a good thing in relation to the tourist
industry. The ice cream cone, the hot dog all date from roughly the same time
Q. Have community suppers ever really gone out of favor?
Stavely: It’s not really about falling out of favor, except insofar as these church traditions have been in decline. When it emerged, it was a result of traditions evolving and adapting. Adaptation has continued ever since.
Fitzgerald: If you think about the ladies in the church today, they are probably the granddaughters or great-granddaughters of people who were reading late-19th-century memoirists talking about these things nostalgically.