Tag Archives: Boston

Seafood in the States

Before I moved here, when I thought of American food, I thought of burgers and pizza, and diners serving pancakes. I didn’t think of seafood. But since I’ve lived here and traveled around a bit, I’ve discovered that seafood in America can be found all over, in all sorts of places, and is not only delicious but also excellent value.

In the UK you’d probably think twice about having oysters in a pub – unless the pub was very much in the area for them and was known to be good. Probably you wouldn’t be able to find oysters on most pub menus. But here on the East Coast you’ll find them fresh by the dozen or fried in a po-boy in all sorts of pubs and bars, and it’s a safe bet to go for them. Even our local sports bar on 18th Street advertises oysters for a dollar each.

I had difficulty working out how to organize this piece, as we’ve had such good seafood on so many wonderful parts of the east coast, and each experience reminds me of another. But in the end I decided to take each type of seafood in turn.

Lobster 

lobster roll

Enjoying lobster my two favourite ways in Maine.

I mentioned the lobster shacks of Maine in a recent post. Lobster certainly is plentiful in this state! You could get it in lobster rolls of slightly sweet brioche-type bread stuffed with cold sweet meat and slathered with mayo. Or steamed and served hot with melted butter, with biscuits and corn cobs on the side. Or even as an ingredient in Mac and Cheese. This was probably my least favourite way to treat lobster – while I can’t really choose between lobster rolls and steamed. But if I thought this was just a Maine thing, I was corrected when we went to Boston and I discovered that you could get a lobster roll for a comparable price at Faneuil Hall, along with excellent clam chowder (I wrote about our trip to Boston here). I’ve also heard that the lobster is similarly great in Connecticut, though they make their lobster rolls with warm meat, tossed in melted butter.

Clams (more specifically, clam chowder)

chowder

When we were in Maine we decided to try to find the best clam chowder. We tried an award-winning one in a small cafe in Freeport (home of the outdoors store LL Bean), but in actual fact found one in a small pub in Boothbay harbour that beat it in our opinion. Both were creamy and had plenty of clam meat in them, but both also had slightly too much bacon taste for us. And we couldn’t seem to find any that used whole clams. Finally the clam chowder in a bread bowl from Fanueil Hall in Boston came into our lives and turned every other clam chowder into a distant memory. It might just have been that we were cold and needed it – but I don’t think so.

Incidentally, when we got back from Maine I found this recipe for clam chowder which I always use now. I like the fact that it doesn’t use cream (always a flavour-killer in my experience) and that it gives such clear instructions for really cleaning the clams to avoid your diners crunching on sand and silt. We had some really badly-cleaned sandy large clams in Maine (they’re known as Steamers because they’re just steamed), and that almost put me off clams for life.

Crab

So I wrote a while ago about how I am enamoured of crab, especially in crab cakes and crab dip. Here in DC we live pretty much on the Chesapeake, so crab is a local delicacy. Everywhere serves crab dip, and crab cakes are a very usual alternative to a burger in many bars in the area. Recently though, R and I discovered the fun that is beating up whole crabs to eat their legs like lolly-pops. We learnt the art of hammering and cracking and fishing about in the shards of shell for tiny morsels of sweet, sweet crab meat on the dock of a water-side bar in Deale on the Chesapeake. Just an hour away from DC, after a day on the beach, we felt like we were on holiday as we ate and drank beer in this beautiful spot. We ordered half a dozen medium crabs, along with a side of hush puppies, and were delighted when the crabs arrived covered in old bay seasoning. While it was hard work (especially when the sun had set) for not very much meat, what we got out of them was completely delicious.

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Oysters

We discovered oysters in Boston. Did you know that oysters from different places taste different? Well we’d never found this until we went to Boston and found that oyster menus are more like wine menus, practically coming with tasting notes. We have learnt that the more Northern oysters from the coast are usually saltier than the ones that come from the Chesapeake or the Virginia river estuaries. Once we’d had our education in Boston (at their Legal Seafood and the wonderful Neptune Oyster) we found that Pop’s Seabar on our street in DC also has fresh oysters daily in at least three varieties, so we’ve been continuing to enjoy tastings.

oysters
The oysters and the water they came from – on the Chesapeake. (Beer goes surprisingly well with oysters we’ve found.)

The rest

We haven’t made such a comprehensive survey of other seafood such as scallops, shrimp and mussels. And I’ve not really had much straight fish. However, we’ve had excellent meals including scallops, in both DC and Boston. Cashion’s Eat Place does nice things with scallops but it was at Boston’s tiny Neptune Oyster that we had the stand-out dish of our time here. R had amazing scallops tossed with perfectly cooked sprouts, and I had one of the best seafood stews I’ve had outside of France.

scallopsIMG_0489

I have noticed a tendency in DC to overcook mussels. This was not a problem at Neptune Oyster.

One place we have not visited yet is New Orleans, where I’m told they have amazing shrimp. So far the shrimp I’ve had in shrimp and grits has been excellent, but I’ve heard that in New Orleans they get Gulf Shrimp, which I need to try. I’m also looking forward to finally travelling to the West coast this fall – R has been and has brought back reports of amazing sushi and fish dishes.

There’s probably lots of American seafood we still haven’t tried – the combination of a lot of coast and numerous culinary styles is a guarantee of that. I just hope the fish stocks hold out. Luckily there are some fish so plentiful they’re actually considered a pest – a local seafood bar hosts a regular all-you-can-eat blue catfish night to do its bit to ‘save the seas’ (see their facebook page). I think I need to get down there!

East Coast Adventures – Boston in February

There were good reasons for why we chose to visit Boston in February. R had a meeting scheduled for the Monday so would have to travel up on his birthday weekend anyway, so I scheduled a research trip at Wellesley, and we booked a flight for the Saturday morning. Then the snow started. While it was pretty obvious both our work events would be cancelled, we felt we had to go anyway, just in case by some miracle they weren’t. And, though it was cold and snowy, and I got stranded there an extra day on my own, we did have some fun.

As I mentioned in one of my introductions to this series, most of our holidays revolve around our main interests of history and food. Boston certainly satisfied both these appetites! When we arrived after an early flight, cold and hungry, we only had to stagger across the road from our hotel to get to the historic Faneuil Hall, which combined Boston’s market-hall with a meeting room above, in which they say America’s first town meeting was held. While originally the people of Boston were suspicious that the market-hall would lead to raised prices and only allowed it to be built because of the promised meeting room, the market is probably now the main draw. As well as housing one of the town’s two bars based on the TV series Cheers, the market is home to stalls selling a wide variety of world cuisines, as well as a number of local delicacies. We stuck to the New England clam chowder because it promised the most warmth. We also tried a Boston cream pie for dessert, but weren’t that struck with them.

Boston makes learning about its revolutionary past very easy. The old part of the town is relatively compact, as is Charlestown across the river, and you can follow the ‘Freedom Trail’ around the historic sites in this area (2.5 miles). There is a bus, but you can also walk it, following a red line on the ground. We decided to walk, as it wasn’t the kind of weather that you want to be standing waiting for a bus in – or sitting still once you’d caught it. We walked it pretty briskly, and the second day we couldn’t look up very much as it was snowing pretty heavily. But actually, walking it in the snow turned out to be maybe more fun than it would be normally – because the red line is on the ground, the snow turned the walk into a bit of a treasure hunt, as we lost the line under snow drifts here and there, and triumphantly found it again where the snow had been cleared for traffic.

Faneuil Hall is one of the sites of the Freedom Trail. Before the British banned assemblies, the hall was used by citizens for meetings protesting the treatment of the colony – Samuel Adams often spoke there. Just behind Faneuil Hall is the Old State House, which, before Independence, housed the royal Governor, the courts, and the Massachusetts Assembly. Just outside was also the site of the Boston Massacre. The guides who work at the Old State House museum do a very good job of explaining this incident. Basically, tensions were running high in Boston after petitions against the importation of foreign goods and the taxes on these. The British governor requested a military presence and regiments of the British army were garrisoned in the city. On the day of the massacre, a large crowd gathered near the Old State House, shouting and throwing things at a small group of British soldiers and taunting them to ‘fire’. At least one of the soldiers was hit. In the confusion, a number of the soldiers fired their weapons into the crowd and at least five citizens were killed. Though the soldiers were all cleared of murder at the trials a year later (John Adams famously defended them), by then Paul Revere and other revolutionaries had turned the event to their advantage. The image that Revere created of the ‘massacre’ for anti-British propaganda was sensationalized in that it shows the British soldiers drawn up in formation against the peaceful citizens of Boston, the senior officer ordering the volley of shots being fired into the crowd.

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“Boston Massacre high-res” by Engrav’d Printed & Sold by Paul Revere Boston. The print was copied by Revere from a design by Henry Pelham for an engraving eventually published under the title “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or the Bloody Massacre,” of which only two impressions could be located by Brigham. Revere’s print appeared on or about March 28, 1770.

Next on the trail was the Old South Meeting House. This was an amazing example of a Puritan meeting hall within what, from the outside, appeared to be a traditional church. Instead of a long central aisle leading to an altar, the room was set out so that a short aisle led to a pulpit, with long lines of closed pews facing it. When public assemblies were banned, citizens continued their meetings in this religious space, so that it was in fact from this meeting hall that the Boston tea party started. It is said that it was here that Samuel Adams spoke the words: ‘This meeting can do nothing more to save the country’, which it is believed was a secret signal to his Sons of Liberty to march to the wharf and throw the newly-arrived tea into the harbor. We got most of this history from the National Parks ranger talk at Faneuil Hall which, like all ranger talks, was excellent and made a fantastic starting point for the walking tour. When we were at the Old South Meeting House it had a small exhibition of the historical and political events in which the meeting house had played a part, and a really helpful timeline. One thing I found interesting, was that it was here that Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for his role in the Salem witch trials.

At this point we decided not to follow the trail up to Boston Common and today’s State House, but to leave that for the next day. Instead we followed the trail through the really old North End district of Boston, visiting Paul Revere’s House, the Paul Revere Mall and the burying ground on our way to Charlestown. [This area is also home to Boston’s Little Italy and where we had an incredible birthday celebration meal of oysters and other seafood, sitting on bar stools, at Neptune Oyster – I’ll write about this another time.] While we might have taken more time about it had it been warmer, the walk was still nice. Paul Revere’s House, however, we didn’t find that interesting. It’s obviously pretty impressive in that it dates from 1680, but it’s a fairly ordinary house of that period. There was plenty of information about his silversmith business, and we learnt that he also printed money for the Massachusetts government. It might be that I’ve been biased against Revere (see my previous post about American history), but I wasn’t that inspired.

Bunker Hill, and the museum, however, I found fascinating. I’m not normally a fan of military history, but the use of a large diorama plus soundtrack and supplemented by a blow by blow account of the British assaults on the hill, made it all pretty exciting. They say that this was the first major battle of the Revolutionary War, and it seems to be a story of mismanagement, hesitation, and ill-preparedness on the British side. Although ‘we’ (the British) ‘won’ the battle, over 1000 British soldiers were killed or wounded compared with only 450 casualties on the American side – all a bit embarrassing. The museum was also keen to make it known that Charlestown had had their own tea-party before Boston; even within the same metropolitan area history is fiercely disputed over here.

Bunker Hill Monument in the snow
Bunker Hill Monument in the snow

After two days of museums and historic sites I really felt like I’d learnt something – so we went to the pub. Because of the snow we didn’t feel like exploring a very large area, but luckily, the Cheers pubs are both on the Freedom Trail and we visited them both. The one in Faneuil Hall is fun, but not that authentic. The one over by Boston Common is marketed as an exact replica. Underground and full of tourists, it was a cosy enough place to spend an hour or so drinking Sam Adams beer, until the blizzard warnings prompted us to make our way back to the hotel.

Overall I was so impressed that Boston kept going through their extreme weather that weekend. The snow was piled so high either side of the roads and pavements that it was hard to get around, and yet people were still going to work, and tourists were still walking the trail. All the museums and bars were open – even the open air fish market was still trading. When the snow storm really hit on Sunday evening we could get across the road to a well-stocked restaurant and there were plenty of taxis still on the roads when we headed back to the hotel that night. It was only the next day that things got difficult. My flight was cancelled and I had to spend the entire day watching the swirling snow storms from my hotel room window. And the next day the metro controversially had to close – though I was still able to get to the airport and fly out pretty easily.

East Coast Adventures – US History

Our travels on the East Coast of America have focused mainly on two of my interests in life – food and history. There’s also been some room for reading too, but more on that in another post. I’ll be writing about the delights of American seafood, barbecue and pizza as I blog about the places where we enjoyed them, but I thought it might be worth writing a bit about US history generally, before getting on to the histories as told by different states.

Before coming to the States I had some knowledge of bits of their history – mainly gleaned as a child from playing Sid Meiers’s Colonization (similar to Civilization, but set between the discovery of the Americas and the achieving of independence) and more recently from half watching the first couple of episodes of HBO’s mini-series John Adams (I would recommend this for the fantastic theme tune and credit sequence alone). I also of course knew the story of the Civil War as told by Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind. But my understanding of the early history of settlement and interaction with the native Americans was sketchy; I wasn’t quite sure who had won the war of 1812 or what it was about; and while I knew not to forget it, I had no idea what The Alamo was. I had learnt quite a bit from the Smithsonian Museum of American History (I blogged about this education here last year) but nothing beats walking the streets where citizens protested the quartering of British soldiers or standing on the battle-field where the British surrendered.

What I have learnt from our travels, though, is that the narrative I thought I knew is largely the narrative of Massachusetts. The story of Puritans seeking a place to practise their religion in peace; of a populace rising up in righteous rebellion against a tyrant king; of the heroism of a New England silversmith, Paul Revere, riding to warn the rebels of the British attack; and the story of a North that sought to abolish slavery and bring about ever more union between the states… All these stories ring truest in Massachusetts – specifically in Boston.

When you travel in Virginia or Maine, however, you find plenty of people ready to dispute the details of this dominant narrative. Archaeologists in Virginia were keen to remind us that of course Jamestown was the first successful British colony – started in 1607 for commercial rather than religious reasons – predating the Mayflower Pilgrims’ Plymouth colony by over ten years. And the museum of Fort William Henry, near another very early fishing colony at Pemaquid Point in Maine, is scathing about the role played by Paul Revere in the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 (during the War of Independence, the British had seized Castine in Maine and the Massachusetts legislature ordered an expedition to dislodge them). In Maine, the story goes that Revere was incompetent as an artillery commander, disobeyed orders, and fled before receiving orders to retreat (the expedition was a disaster). They prefer to commemorate the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who immortalised Massachusetts’ hero in the poem, Paul Revere’s Ride – making it clear that there were of course many riders, and Revere’s name was just useful because it rhymed:

Listen my children and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere

(it’s not a particularly good poem).

Meanwhile, in Boston, they insist that Revere’s name was cleared in the court martial he demanded for himself in 1782. They claim that the accusations only came about because the Massachusetts militia needed a scapegoat.

While I loved Boston, and thought their museums were very persuasive on most things, I’m more inclined to believe Maine’s version of the story of Paul Revere. This is partly because I was influenced by Bernard Cornwell’s historical novel of the Penobscot Expedition The Fort, which was excellent holiday reading in Maine.

I’m by no means an expert yet, but I’m certainly enjoying continuing my education in American history through reading, watching TV series, and, of course, more traveling.

Recommendations for anyone looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of American history – or just a different perspective (based only on where I’ve been and what I’ve read so far):

On the early colonies:

  • Jamestown archaeological site, Virginia
  • Mark A. Noll and Luke E. Harlow, Religion and American Politics: from the colonial period to the present

On the War of Independence:

  • Fort William Henry, Maine
  • TURN: Washington’s Spies, AMC series
  • Bernard Cornwell, The Fort

On the Civil War and its aftermath:

  • Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial (in Arlington Cemetery)
  • E. L. Doctorow, The March
  • Ford’s Theatre (especially the Ranger talk)
  • D. W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation (warning: explicitly racist)

When will it be Spring?

I’m tired of the cold. Tired of having to bundle up in layers, coat, hat and scarf before leaving the apartment. And I’m tired of the snow – picking my way over re-frozen slush to the supermarket in my walking boots. I’m tired of the conversations about the cold and the snow, and checking and rechecking the forecast for any hope of future warmth.

I’ve grown accustomed to the sound of snow shovels scraping the sidewalk outside my apartment. I meticulously plan my laundry to ensure the necessary cycling of thermals and big jumpers. My cupboards are stocked with soup and instant noodles/pasta for when I can’t get out, and I regularly fill the kettle and Brita filter in preparation for when the pipes inevitably burst again.

My shoulders are so used to being tensed against the cold that on the rare day (one so far) that the temperature rises above 2 or 3 degrees centigrade it took me a while to recognize that the happy, light feeling I was experiencing came from my muscles suddenly being relaxed.

And of course, we really shouldn’t complain here in DC; we have it comparatively easy. We’re laughing stocks for allowing our 2–4 inches of snow (central DC) to shut down the metro, schools and the government. Boston has had something like 7.5 feet of snow since Christmas and when the public transport system struggled, criticisms were so great that the metro chief had to resign. People there are really sick of the snow – having to dig their cars out of the snow multiple times in a day, attempting to clear their driveways and sidewalks when there’s nowhere to put the snow. Coming from parts of the UK where snow is unusual and – when it does settle – short-lived, I’d never appreciated quite what a physical problem snow could be. If the temperature stays below freezing and every weekend brings more snow, that is actually over 7 feet of snow piled on the ground. Clearing sidewalks by throwing the snow to one side results in walls of packed snow – effectively as hard as cement – towering above the streets. The challenge is not simply to ‘clear’ the streets, it’s where to put all the snow – as it’s not going anywhere on its own. Construction vehicles have to be pressed into service along with the snow blowers and cutters, to take the snow to ‘snow farms’ or – controversially – dump it in the Charles river.

Snow cutter in Boston before the storm

The snow in DC is far more like the snow I’ve experienced in London of Wales. It’s just the duration of this snowbound season that’s longer. We have the same issue as Boston of temperatures not getting above freezing for long enough to clear our – admittedly paltry – inches of snow from the sidewalks, or do more than cause streams of meltwater and slush which then re-freeze to ice when the sun disappears.

Apparently this is a bad year in DC – apart from last year most people can’t remember winter being this cold for this long. I’m taking comfort in the fact that when we arrived here at the end of last March I only had to wear my winter coat once before it was well and truly spring. Hopefully it won’t be long before I can consign my hat and scarf to the closet for another year.