HOME COOK : In Praise of Brown Food

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During this chilly, cantankerous winter, the consoling smells of New England, as warm as flannel, have filled my California kitchen. I’ve been serving Boston Baked Beans, Boston Brown Bread and Indian Pudding (so-called because it contains “Indian meal”--cornmeal).

These are dishes steeped in tradition, like a lot of things in New England. A Boston restaurant called Durgin-Park, for instance, is probably the oldest and most unchanging in the country. Since 1827 it has had only three sets of owners and only five chefs.

It’s located in an ancient three-story building across from Faneuil Hall Market. Originally the restaurant catered to the hearty appetites of straw-hatted, white-aproned produce-market men. It became an obligatory stop for local characters and then for visiting celebrities (including Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt) and more-ordinary tourists.


Durgin-Park is an unpretentious place, with a certain dinginess that it makes no attempt to disguise under a quaint veneer, but it has a genuine charm that only time can create. Along with its worn, irregular floors and long, time-grooved tables, it has a hallowed sound of its own: clattering dishes; noisy conversations, and the intermittent commentary of sharp-tongued waitresses, some of whom have been there for 40 years.

These are the specialties of the house: rare roast beef; baked ham; codfish; broiled scrod; New England boiled dinner; Boston baked beans; “bale of hay” (a combination of peas, string beans and potatoes); chowder; apple pie; apple pan dowdy; hot corn bread; blueberry cake; Indian pudding, and strawberry shortcake. Many other regional favorites show up as well. In the earlier days the menu included bear steaks, venison pie and occasionally raccoon.

The second owner of Durgin-Park, James Hallett, brought his brother, Edward, into the business and made him Chief Bean Man, a position of responsibility--he was in charge of preparing the daily batch of baked beans. Edward’s philosophy was: “You can’t let the pot just set in the oven. You’ve got to add water as necessary to keep the beans moist. And you can’t be impatient and add too much water at a time and flood the beans.”

The chef at that time, whose name was Albert, added: “The chief difference between Yankee cooking and most other kinds of cooking is that we make our food taste like what it’s supposed to be.” There’s no more New England attitude than that.

One of the immutable policies at Durgin-Park is no reservations. “There is only one thing worse than serving bad food,” they say, “and that is a vacant table with a reserved sign on it while customers are standing around waiting for a seat.”

One sad loss over the years has been the penny sticks of spruce gum at the cash register. James Hallett, the second owner of Durgin-Park, used to say: “It has a terrible taste and it pulls the fillings right out of your teeth. The old-timers loved it.” All the spruce gum chewed on Durgin-Park premises was made by a farmer at Five Islands, Me. When he passed on, Hallett said: “No one could make spruce gum like that old farmer. The way that stuff held broken chairs together was simply wonderful!”


Among the many Durgin-Park legends, my favorite concerns Martha Bence, who happily cut the pies for 45 years. At age 70 she decided it was time to retire. She went up to the Durgin-Park attic where she kept her six cats, picked them up and took them home, expecting never to return.

Martha’s retirement lasted just three weeks. It was the most troubled period of her life. She was haunted by nightmares of Durgin-Park pies being cut into tiny slivers and served to starving customers in thimbles.

Her cats were restless too. They missed the mousing in the restaurant attic. Early one morning Martha and her six cats returned to Durgin-Park.

Credit for some of this material goes to Allan Gould and Emile C. Schurmacher, whose article, “Boston Beanery,” appeared in Collier’s Magazine in 1935.

BOSTON BAKED BEANS 2 cups navy beans, small white beans or Great Northern Beans About 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 pound salt pork 2 teaspoons dry mustard 5 tablespoons dark-brown sugar 4 tablespoons molasses

Wash beans. Soak overnight. Add salt, stir and drain, reserving liquid. Cut off third of salt pork and place on bottom of bean pot. Add beans to pot. Blend mustard, brown sugar and molasses with reserved bean liquid and pour over beans. Cut several slits in remaining piece of salt pork and place on top of beans.


Cover and bake at 300 degrees about 6 hours, adding water as needed. Uncover final hour of cooking so pork will become brown and crisp. Taste and adjust seasonings. Makes 8 servings.

Note: For shorter soaking time, put 2 cups of beans in pot, cover with 6 cups water, bring to boil and cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover pot and let stand 1 hour before cooking.

Each serving contains about: 329 calories; 509 mg sodium; 12 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 44 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams protein; 2.92 grams fiber.

INDIAN PUDDING 4 cups milk 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal 1/3 cup dark-brown sugar 1/3 cup granulated sugar 1/3 cup molasses 1 teaspoon salt 4 tablespoons butter 1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Heat 2 cups of milk until very hot and pour slowly over cornmeal, stirring constantly. Cook in double boiler over simmering water for 10 to 15 minutes, until cornmeal mixture is creamy. Add dark-brown sugar, granulated sugar, molasses, salt, butter, ginger and cinnamon and mix well.

Spoon into buttered 1 1/2-quart baking dish, pour remaining 2 cups of milk on top, set into pan of hot water, and bake at 275 degrees 2 1/2 to 3 hours or until set. Pudding will become firmer as it cools. Serve with heavy whipping cream or vanilla ice cream. Makes 8 servings.


Each serving contains about: 229 calories; 421 mg sodium; 25 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 35 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.06 gram fiber.

BOSTON BROWN BREAD 1/2 cup rye flour 1/2 cup cornmeal 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup molasses 1 cup sour milk or buttermilk

Mix rye flour, cornmeal, whole-wheat flour, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Using fork, stir in molasses and milk and blend well. Butter 1-quart pudding mold or 1-pound coffee tin and fill no more than two-thirds full. Cover tightly and place in deep kettle. Add boiling water halfway up mold. Cover kettle and steam over moderate heat 1 1/2 hours, replacing water if necessary.

Remove from mold. While hot, cut slices by drawing piece of string around bread, crossing and pulling ends. Reheat, if necessary, at 300 degrees. Makes 10 or more slices.

Note: To “sour” pasteurized milk, add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup of milk and let stand at room temperature 10 to 15 minutes.

Each serving contains about: 102 calories; 135 mg sodium; 2 mg cholesterol; 1 grams fat; 21 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.19 gram fiber.