“The September evening set in brisk and chill, and the cheerful fire that snapped and roared up the ample chimney of Captain Kittridge’s kitchen was a pleasing feature.
“The days of our story were before the advent of those sullen gnomes, the ‘air-tights,’ or even those more sociable and cheery domestic genii, the cooking-stoves. They were the days of the genial open kitchen-fire, with the crane, the pot-hooks and trammels — where hissed and boiled the social tea-kettle, where steamed the huge dinner-pot, in whose ample depths beets, carrots, potatoes, and turnips boiled in jolly sociability with the pork or corned beef which they were destined to flank at the coming meal.”
This quotation from the 1861 novel “The Pearl of Orr’s Island” by Harriet Beecher Stowe reminds us why New England boiled dinner was cooked in one pot. Before more efficient, air-tight iron stoves became common for heating and cooking, all cooking was conducted in the open hearth. Beecher’s description is a nostalgic recollection of a time when rooms other than the main room or kitchen were often left unheated. A family naturally tended to gather near the main source of heat and light. The “jolly sociability” of Beecher’s boiled dinner describes the family as well as the vegetables.
Trammels were adjustable hooks that hung from the horizontal, iron crane and had holes or saw teeth to adjust the height of a pot hanging over the fire. Fireplace cooking developed extra campfire flavor but required constant tending, basting, and turning for even cooking. Stews, soups and steamed puddings were much easier, required less bending, and allowed the busy cook to do other chores.
I take one exception to Beecher’s description. Cookbooks of the time often suggest cooking beets separately or leaving them out of a boiled dinner. Beets have a natural dye that will turn parsnips and potatoes pink. Beecher did not mention cabbage, but it was frequently included in this dish.
Cabbages and root vegetables are long keepers. People depended on cabbages and root crops stored in their cellar or root cellar to have vegetables all winter. A middle-class family would likely have a barrel of corned beef as well as one of corned (brined) pork in the basement or some hams hung in the chimney to smoke.
Today Harriet Beecher Stowe is remembered for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which everyone has heard about and too few people have read. She was an early writer of regional color who influenced later writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett.
“The Pearl of Orr’s Island” has fine descriptions of southern Maine, though she slips into Victorian sentimentality in describing the redemptive influence of her suffering, saintly heroine.
The following recipe is from Sarah Josepha Hale’s 1841 publication, “The Good Housekeeper.”
“The perfection of boiling is that it be done slowly and the pot well skimmed … When beef is very salt … it must be soaked for half an hour or more, in lukewarm water before it is put on to boil, when the water must be changed … Put [the corned beef] into your boiler with plenty of cold water to cover it; set the pot on one side of the fire to boil gently. The slower it boils, the tenderer it will be … Be sure to take up all the scum as it rises …,” Hale writes. “Garnish the dish with carrots and turnips. Boiled potatoes, carrots, turnips, and greens, on separate plates, are good accompaniments. If the beef weigh ten pounds, it requires to boil, or rather simmer, about three hours.”
Hale is right about the importance of simmering over low heat and removing the fat as it rises to the surface. Note that to lower the temperature to a simmer, the fireplace cook had to move the pot away from the fire.
Traditionally, a New England boiled dinner was a no-fuss meal with a democratic mixture of root vegetables flavored by corned beef. Hale’s recommendation to cook and serve the vegetables separately is a genteel refinement that undermines the traditional, one-pot ease of cooking and serving a New England boiled dinner.
Different cuts of corned beef have different amounts of fat. The point cut has more fat and is tender and flavorful, the flat cut is leaner and has a more consistent thickness, and corned beef labeled brisket includes part of each. Whichever cut you choose, remember that when Hale mentioned slow boiling, she meant simmering, not boiling. Simmering tenderizes a tough cut of meat; boiling turns it to rubber. Following is my adaptation of Hale’s recipe.