Today I want to talk about food. Okay, I always want to talk about food, but today I have a specific topic. I write a lot on this blog about cultural resources and recognizing community assets, and this past summer I got to thinking a lot about everyone’s favorite asset, food. And more specifically, local food traditions that are profoundly seasonal and place-based, that make a big part of understanding life wherever we are. We talk a lot these days about obesity, packaged food, industrial food system contamination, and the problems of factory animal farming, and I think it’s important to keep in mind all of the incredible local, cultural food traditions that we all do still enjoy and engage in our daily lives. So, I want to share a little bit about my experience with New England’s food traditions, which I spent a lot of time thinking about (and enjoying) this past summer. Please share in comments food traditions in your own area that you love!
Ok, well you can’t talk about New England summer food traditions without talking about lobster. Er, lobstah. This summer we spent a week in Maine sampling the best of DownEast Lobster Pounds, where they still boil lobsters in massive pots on top of wood fires in outdoor brick fireplaces. Is this because the Maine landscape is so profoundly dependent on tourism that they replicate this tradition throughout the summer regardless of local tastes? Who knows. There are plenty of lobster dinners around the small towns. Is that a community event or a tourist event? Who knows. Lobster is delicious. Of course, don’t even ask about the lobster stock and whether tourism demands create a distastrous overfishing cycle…because lobster is delicious. Um, remember how talking about “authentic” cultural assets always turns into a discussion about tourism and environmental sustainability? Ugh. Can’t I just eat my lobster?
So, in these photos you can see the tension between the kitschy/silly and perhaps a more “earnest” aesthetic. I don’t want to assume that the former is inauthentic while the latter isn’t, because of course isn’t a traveler’s expectation to Maine an experience of the “salt-of-the-earth” lobsterman? One guidebook I read said, “This is the Maine of your imagination.” I totally bought it, so what does that say about me. I will say, however, that I was struck by the tangible working landscape throughout Maine, which didn’t feel tourist-focused at all. Just profoundly resilient, quiet, and long-lived.
Did I say quiet?
Wild blueberry land!
Okay, but seriously, wild blueberries are one of the three indigenous berries to the US, and they pretty much only grow on the DownEast coast of Maine. They’re everywhere, you can pick them as you hike, and pretty much every highway stop has someone selling the tiny, honey-flavored, blueberries. Talk about turning a unique local resource into an asset! Blueberry pie, blueberry cake, blueberry whoopie pie, blueberry jam — they’re everywhere, and this really gets to the quality of the Maine tourist experience: all of this blueberry-ness makes you feel connected to the traditions of the place, and ALSO provides a quality, desirable souvenir product for tourists that can help the local economy. You can take home a lobster, of course, but wouldn’t you prefer a pot of jam for your birthday?
These two local food traditions are derived from local agricultural/aquacultural abundance, transformed into cultural traditions related to preparation style, product marketing, and attraction creation. Another kind of food tradition, of course, derives not from the bounty of the local environment but from the cultural traditions of people who have brought their indigenous foods to a new homeland. Enter, Boston’s North End Feasts.
My grandmother grew up in the North End and Medford in the 1940s, which were then both working-class and immigrant Italian neighborhoods, so no visit from my grandparents is complete without at least an afternoon in the North End. Why don’t we go to Medford every visit, too? If you know Boston, you know: today, Medford has continued to exist as an evolving immigrant and working-class community, while the North End of Boston is, well, Italy-land. I recently read in an article that all of the old Italians who sit on the sidewalk sipping cappuccinos and smoking cigars and rasping Sicilian dialects — essentially, the only people who keep the North End from feeling like a preppy Boston neighborhood with a faux-Italian circus in the middle of it — actually drive into the neighborhood every morning from suburban homes. Like Maine, another landscape transformed by the desire of tourists to consume an “authentic” environment.
But there are still traditions in the North End — traditions that never moved to the suburbs, that continue to define a community, a place, and its history. One of these is the aforementioned sidewalk culture, the cafe-cum-bar that my grandparents and I usually find ourselves in sometime before dinner. But I’d say the most important tradition are the hundred-year-old festas that happen every weekend in the summer. There is a deeply community-oriented religious aspect to the ritual, an annual, family tradition. There also is a sort of recreation of the Italian passegiatta on the sidewalk. And, of course, there is the food. Sausage and peppers, fried calamari, red sauce, cannoli. YUM! Street food.
I think that’s how I’ll leave you. Yum, street food.
p.s. If you’re interested in learning more about food traditions in the US, I highly recommend Mark Kurlansky’s Food of a Younger Land, an archival study of the WPA’s survey of food throughout the US during the Depression. It’s awesome. Kurlansky in general is, I’d say. Also, I think and cook about New England food traditions here from time to time. As in, very rarely because food blogging is hard!