Meg Muckenhoupt, The Truth about Baked Beans: An Edible History of New England (Non-fiction)
Review by Megan St. Marie
MEG MUCKENHOUPT, The Truth about Baked Beans: An Edible History of New England, New York: NYU Press, 2021. ISBN: 9781479882762.
reviewed by Megan St. Marie
Equal parts history book, cookbook, and cultural criticism, Meg Muckenhoupt’s The Truth about Baked Beans: An Edible History of New England serves up a satisfying, delectable read that just might give Yankee stalwarts a hint of indigestion. Throughout, Muckenhoupt challenges prevailing notions about so-called traditional New England dishes while advocating an expansive, more inclusive vision of the history of the region’s cuisine—and of its future.
Central to her project is pointed scrutiny of the “culinary myths…of some of New England’s most famous foods: baked beans, brown bread, clams, cod and lobsters, ‘northern’ cornbread, Vermont cheese, apples, cranberries, maple syrup, pies, and New England boiled dinner, also known as Yankee pot roast” (2). In text that often bristles with humor while layering in demographic statistics and food facts, Muckenhoupt exposes these myths’ roots in romanticized notions of the “Victorian ideal of New England,” (3) which exalts the Yankee descendants of British settlers while marginalizing, ignoring, or outright erasing other New Englanders. By interrogating how these foods became synonymous with New England (to the exclusion of those foods and foodways associated with myriad immigrant groups, enslaved people of African descent and their descendants, and New England’s Indigenous peoples), Muckenhoupt lays bare the inextricable links between food, culture, and hierarchies based on racial and ethnic difference.
To achieve her goals, Muckenhoupt devotes attention to the historic and current diverse populations of New England and their foods, including people of Wampanoag, Italian, Irish, Portuguese, Cape Verdean, Puerto Rican, Polish, and Greek descent, among others. While Franco American fare is not the main focus of her work, Muckenhoupt highlights the impact of culinary traditions from Québec and L’Acadie (Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) on the New England region. Descendants of the estimated 900,000 people who immigrated to the United States from Québec and L’Acadie between 1840 and 1930 will likely recognize as our own foods mentioned such as raisin pie, tarte au sucre, split pea soup, and tourtière (a meat pie traditionally served at réveillon, or the Christmas Eve feast). We also may join Muckenhoupt in questioning why, nearly two centuries after this wave of immigration began, such dishes are considered French Canadian rather than Franco American or New England fare.
On the other hand, readers may be intrigued to learn “the truth about baked beans.” Muckenhoupt refutes the myth that Boston baked beans, characterized by their high sugar content (molasses) and added pork, are a Yankee dish inspired by Indigenous ways of preparing beans with maple syrup. Rather, she asserts a more complex culinary history that finds no evidence for Indigenous influence, but does include Franco American versions of the dish. In fact, the book’s recipe section includes not one, but four recipes for baked beans, two of which are Franco in origin (133–135).
Also included in the recipes are: a riff on Thanksgiving stuffing originating in the Franco American community of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and inspired by tourtière filling (162); French Canadian Yellow Split Pea Soup, with reputed origins dating back to the explorer Samuel de Champlain (127); French Canadian American Raisin Pie from Lowell, Massachusetts (153); and a delicacy called “Acadian Beignets, aka Grand-Père’s Dans le Sirop, aka Maple Syrup Dumplings,” (156). (Though not mentioned in Muckenhoupt’s book, to that triple-named treat one might add the name “Crapeaus,” a dialect form of the French “crapauds,” which translates to “toads,” and which is the name used in northwestern Vermont for these lumpy, rich little dumplings boiled in maple syrup.)
Threaded into Muckenhoupt’s readable, engaging work, and especially its latter sections, is considerable attention to how environmental degradation caused by climate change, overfishing, invasive plant species and attendant blights, and pollution threaten to undermine the viability of many New England foodways—where they haven’t already outright done so. For example, the text documents that the very fish for which Cape Cod is named is now nearly absent from its coastal waters after “[c]od landings in New England sank by 98 percent between 1945 and 2017” (208) due to overfishing and rising seawater temperatures. Likewise, “the new combination of shorter, warmer winters combined with more intense rainstorms and hotter summers is poised to drastically reduce cranberry production in Massachusetts” (244). It’s not a stretch to imagine a similar impact on maple sugaring and apple cultivation, as well.
The hope to be found in Muckenhoupt’s message resides in her culminating call for a broader understanding of what “New England food” might be: “not what Ye Olde Wealthee Bostonians might have had their servants prepare, but what people living in the region actually eat today” (276). And yet, the criteria she lays out for meeting this basic parameter give way to a list of contenders that are all “industrialized, prepackaged fast food,” including Marshmallow Fluff, invented in Somerville, Massachusetts. “[W]e need to change our culture,” (277) writes Muckenhoupt, if we want the New England culinary tradition to transcend such limitations and embrace and nurture the contributions of its diverse populace. As all New Englanders reckon with the climate crisis, such cultural change could fortify our regional foodways by divorcing them from the Victorian ideal Muckenhoupt skewers like so much pot roast and turning us toward more sustainable practices to help heal environmental degradation that ensued with the rise of industrialization in that same era.