How Do You Make a New England Boiled Dinner for 100? Start With 50 Pounds of Ham.
When he was in the military back in the '50s, Stephen Garrow headed up the officers' mess on his base, where he and his fellow cooks turned out 300 meals three times a day. Which may be why he's unfazed by the mere 100 people he'll be feeding at the West Fairlee Church supper a week from tomorrow.
"Chef Steve's Famous Old-Fashion New England Boiled Dinner" will run from 5:00 to 6:30 pm on August 16 at the West Fairlee Church on Route 113. And yes, that venue may be tugging at your memory because it's also the site of the regionally famous (as in, All Of New England) game dinner in October -- the one where Steve's joined by other chefs, including one whose specialty is cooking beaver.
A New England boiled dinner is more straightforward. Starting around 9 am at the church, Steve will get his 50 pounds of ham butts boiling, along with onions and turnips. "I always sprinkle a little pickling seasoning into the water with the hams," he says. "It gives them a better flavor." He'll keep the hams going for a couple of hours, then add carrots and, if he can get them, parsnips. Then potatoes. And then finally, he'll put chunked cabbages on top of everything, letting the steam cook them.
The dinner has its roots in the great New England pastime of making the most of what you've got. "Years ago, the way this came about," he says, "is that they’d pickle hams and smoke them, and then over the winter cut off quite a lot, and when they got to the end, they'd put it in a pot and boil it for a couple hours with a turnip. Then the cabbages were hung down in the cellar, maybe with hay bale string, and as you needed them you went and got one. And they had turnips, and always had carrots buried in the sand. And generally beets. And of course onions."
All together, he figures he'll go through about 25 pounds of carrots, 10 or 15 pounds of parsnips if he can find them at a reasonable price, maybe 18 heads of cabbage (which are non-negotiable in a New England boiled dinner)... and probably only 8 turnips. "Turnips are not as popular as carrots or parsnips," he says.
He's not entirely sure how many people are going to show up, but figures he's safe counting on 100. The last time he made a spaghetti dinner at the church he assumed maybe 60 people would come. It turned out to be 90.
Whoever does sit down at the church tables can rest easy in the knowledge that they're doing boiled dinner the right way. Here's what food writers extraordinaire Jane and Michael Stern had to say in New England Today back in March: "Because although Boiled Dinner is at home in every New England state, its essential qualities are Vermont’s. It is a commonsense meal, no exotic ingredients. It is a meal with integrity — throw everything into the pot, pull it out when it’s cooked. No tricky culinary manipulations allowed. It is frugal and spartan and pridefully common."
Oh, one other thing. Steve would have a few words for me if I forgot to mention dessert, which includes gingerbread with whipped cream -- real cream, donated by Baker's Store in Post Mills. Maybe this is also the place to mention that he grew up on a farm in Woodstock, along the Pomfret road. "Gingerbread is a great dessert, especially if you have Jersey cows and dip the cream off the milk can and bring it in and make whipped cream," he says. "So when I say real whipped cream, that’s what we’re getting. Nothing from a can."
The price of admission for all this? A donation.