Yesterday the Boston Globe ushered in a new era of New England cuisine. An article by Jonathan Levitt begins with the headline "The new tastes of New England" and ends with the sentence: "Welcome to the new New England cuisine." Which begs the question: is that so? The story discusses the new New England cuisine - call it "New-New" - in tangent with what's happening in Scandinavia at restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen and Faviken Magasinet in rural Sweden. And though Levitt does not establish a direct link, it's not hard to see that similar things are happening all over the world, including in Boston.
Some examples of what could be called New-New include Brasstacks, a supper club, Kitchen, in the South End, and the upcoming Inman Square restaurant Puritan & Co. by Will Gilson, all of which involve some combination of historical, regional dishes with contemporary preparations. And there are plenty more local restaurants - like Craigie on Main, Bondir and Strip-T's - blending elements of New England nostalgia with the culinary wizardry of today.
But is New-New new? Imagine how surprised New Englanders of yesteryear would be to find out that, in 2012, hot new Boston restaurants were serving hardtack (which they are). What some think of as cutting edge might seem like a culinary Dark Age to people who had no choice but to eat that stuff.
Dishes composed of nearly-extinct vegetable varietals and offal are indeed largely new to generations who grew up on canned corn and boneless, skinless chicken breast, but many aspects of the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto are old hat. That's the whole point. Take ingredients like foraged foods and heirlooms that have historically been eaten out of necessity and serve them to people who don't have to eat them out of necessity. It's a bit like the Coke Classic phenomenon: take away the old, bring in the new, bring back the old as new. And what makes classic New England different from New England Classic? Sometimes a lot, sometimes some soy sauce. Remember, once upon a time black pepper - native to India - was an Asian influence, too.
Some would say that New-New is indeed novel because, though our predecessors used many of the same ingredients, they ate a fairly coarse diet in comparison. However a flip through a food history such as the 1974 book American Food by Evan Jones reveals a surprisingly colorful New England culinary past not so different from what you'll find in Boston today. Jones includes a pre-1763 recipe for "an interesting pie that contains pieces of lobster claws, lobster meatballs, and oysters" along with grated nutmeg and "an anchovy shred." There's also a historic recipe from Ogunquit, Maine for haddock that's been notched and "wedged with strips of salt pork" and "garnished with crisply fried salt pork, parsley-sprinkled potatoes, and butter beets... usually served with an egg sauce." Add a little kombu, or maybe some Pop Rocks, and that Old-New could be New-New.
What do you think? Is Boston crossing into bold new culinary territory? Comment away.