Boston’s Food Scene: Past and Present

by Lesley Sykes

Boston’s thriving food scene would likely impress any newcomer to the area. In recent years, the city has transformed into a flourishing center for local food, cafes, artisan bakeries, ethnic eateries, and fine dining. And this scene is still unfolding today! New chefs and retail operators are embracing the local food movement and the city’s demand for exquisite food.

In the midst of this revolution, which has triggered a new wave of ethnic food and culinary trends (largely from France, Italy, and the West Coast), it is notable that Bostonians have upheld the historical and traditional elements that define Boston and its food. A historical look into food culture and retail in Boston, as well as a thorough rundown of food hot spots, will allow for a greater appreciation and knowledge of just what Boston food really is about. After all, Boston hasn’t always been the food hub as we know it as today.

Historical Boston

At the start of the early 18th century, Boston lacked a central marketplace. According to Food Timeline, pushcart vendors circulated through the town offering an assortment of local fare including seafood, wild game, fowl, apples, nuts, berries and onions. Cooking was largely based on traditions of English and Irish immigrants, including meals like stews, roasts, preserved meats, biscuits and puddings. However, influences from New World ingredients like corn, squash, beans and potatoes were also incorporated.

In 1742, Fanueil Hall was built, serving as a bazaar for a variety of fresh fare. It also functioned as a congregation area and an important platform for famous orators (“no taxation without representation”). Around 1830, the Faneuil Hall area was expanded to include Quincy Market, a supplementary food retail edifice, as well as the nearby Haymarket (an open-air produce marketplace). Food was hauled in from throughout the Commonwealth, a territory that held fast to its legacy as an important agricultural state. But, while primary colonial occupations included trading, farming and fishing, many found the non-fertile soil, topography and glacial stone deposits to be barriers to large-scale farming. Subsistence farming was simply a way of life during this time period.

By the 19th century, traditional dishes that we recognize as Boston classics were well-established: baked beans, or navy beans slow-cooked with molasses; deep-fried batter-dipped local clams; and the well-known creamy clam chowder, then known as a working-class one-pot meal among New England fisherman.

Also noteworthy has been the importance of beer brewing to the area’s history. The first “publick house”—a building in which ale was brewed and served—was licensed in Massachusetts in 1634, and in 1637 the first brewery in the colony was opened. Since then, Boston has been known as one of the leading meccas of beer in America. The city also boasts a rich history in immigration, most visible by the long-standing vibrant Italian neighborhood known as the North End, the bustling Chinatown area, and the plethora of Irish pubs lining the city’s streets.

A Need for Revival

Things have changed dramatically since Colonial era Boston. Overtime, the Commonwealth at large lost thousands of acres of farmland due to industrial and residential development. Fanueil Hall fell to disrepair (although it was later revived as a touristy food center). And good eateries were pitifully sparse.

Lucky for Boston, Julia Child moved to Cambridge in the 1960s and began her long successful career on camera. Child was largely responsible for redefining the culinary domain in Boston. Within a few decades, the restaurant scene had exploded. In due course, local chefs emerged such as Todd English and Peter Davis, who carved their niche in the metropolitan food picture. Today, there are respectable eateries and food markets to satisfy every craving, whether it is for highly exotic tastes or for local flavors.

Paralleling Boston’s culinary movement is the resurgence of small-scale farming operations and the demand for local food in the urban center. In contrast to the bleak farming outlook nationally, small farming activity in Boston has emerged as a viable and profitable business.  Direct marketing sales in Massachusetts—from farmers’ markets, roadside stands, pick-your-own (u-pick) crops, and community-supported agriculture (CSA)—have increased more than two-fold from the 1970’s. Most importantly for the Commonwealth’s sustainability efforts, the state has increased its number of organic farms from 129 in 2002 to 295 in 2007. The area is top-ranked for direct sale of farm products to consumers, reflecting the resurgence of good food and health in the Greater Boston area.

Now with a historical perspective under your belt, here is a rundown of the food galore in the Boston metropolitan area.

Boston Food Rundown

The Boston metro area is the largest in New England and represents a lot of eaters, many who are interested in new tastes and flavors and locally produced food. Part of what makes the area so great is that it has evolved into a city of neighborhoods, each representing different immigrant populations with their respective cultures and cuisines.

Retail food options include wholesale and direct sale via farmers’ markets and CSAs. The thriving restaurant scene has given rise to many notable chefs: Ken Oringer, Barnara Lynch, Tim Cushman, and Jody Adams, to name a few. An increasing number of hot spots are using locally sourced ingredients, contributing to the larger “eat local” movement.

Retail Food Options

Farmers’ markets: There are currently 22 established farmers’ markets in the city of Boston, not including countless markets in the outer metro area. Unfortunately, long cold winters only allow markets to run seasonally; by December, most are shut down until spring harvest. (http://www.massfarmersmarkets.org/)

Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs): There are many Commonwealth farms that offer shares to consumers living in Boston. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables and other local farm products that is delivered throughout the growing season to a pick-up point. While most services are limited to the summer and fall months, there are a handful that offer regional winter produce. (http://www.ediblecommunities.com/boston/resources/resources.htm)

Haymarket: This is a category in itself and a longstanding tradition in Boston. Produce comes from what’s leftover at the Boston terminal produce market and is sold for outrageously cheap prices. (Most of the food is far from being locally sourced.) A very hectic scene indeed!

Corner stores: There are countless neighborhood corner stores in Boston that serve of important food sources for residents, many of which are ethnically focuses.

Local food retailers: The options are plenty and the list continues to expand. City Feed & Supply, Harvest Co-op, Foodie’s Market, The North End Fish Market, Russo’s in Watertown, South End Formaggio, Sherman Market, and Marshall’s Farm Stand. The Dairy Bar, Dave’s Fresh Pasta and Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge/Somerville all sell locally produced meats, cheese, processed goods, and/or produce. Also, the region’s Whole Foods Markets make a considerable effort to carry local products.

Some Key Hotspots for Eating Out

Newbury Street: Trendy restaurants with umbrella-shaded sidewalk patios are dispersed along the street and serve as a treat during spring and summer months.

North End: Narrow and compact streets are saturated with Italian-American trattorias, ranging from hole-in-the-wall to white tablecloth dining. The gelaterias, delis, fresh pasta and cheese shops, cafes, and bakeries are also definitely worth visiting. Mike’s Pastry is a local favorite!

Fanueil Hall: Bordered by the waterfront, Government Center, Haymarket, and the North End, this shopping area includes Quincy Market and a food court packed with seafood and other fast-food eateries. Very touristy but a true Boston experience.

South End: Some of Boston’s finest dining can be found along Tremont Street. There is a notable concentration of trendy, upscale restaurants in this area.

Allston-Brighton: Lots of student hangout spots and an upcoming area for new ethnic restaurants.

Chinatown: Nestled between Downtown Crossing and the South End, this area offers a variety of Asian cuisine and very authentic food markets.

Harvard Square: A center for students, academics, tourists and locals alike, the area is packed with a variety of great ethnic and local food-based restaurants, bars and cafes.

Dorchester: Plenty of good Vietnamese eateries along with some new trendy hot spots.

A note about seafood: Seafood is big in Boston. There are plenty of distinguished American-style seafood options including Legal Seafood, Atlantic Fish and Cambridge’s East Coast Grill & Raw Bar. Take note: this area’s seafood offerings do not just come in the form of lobster, fried clams or clam chowder. Chinatown, the North End, and Cambridge’s Portuguese neighborhood are some examples of areas that wonderfully incorporate local fresh fish into ethnic cuisine.

Great local food resources:

http://www.ediblecommunities.com/boston/resources/resources.htm

http://calendar.boston.com/restaurants

http://www.bostonchefs.com/

http://www.urbanspoon.com/c/4/Boston-restaurants.html

http://www.bostonmagazine.com/index.html

http://www.massfarmersmarkets.org/

http://www.meetup.com/Urban-Homesteaders-League/

http://thefoodproject.org/local-food-resource

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