When chef Barry Maiden enters the walk-in fridge of Hungry Mother, the Cambridge restaurant he co-owns, he becomes visibly excited, and not just from the chilly air.
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“We got these greens in today,” says Maiden, tearing open a bag of mixed cresses from a local farm and popping a few leaves into his mouth. As he munched, Maiden said the same thing as the handwritten label on the bag: “Spicy.”
Farm-to-table cooking has swept the United States, and in the Boston area the movement is fueled by a sense of history and a respect for farmers who wrestle crops from a climate that is rarely described as forgiving. It makes sense that the local foods movement was largely born in sunny California, but in Boston the trend has taken root with exceptional fervor, not unlike an overwintered parsnip. Farm-to-table chefs like Maiden tend to print their menus daily as they ride the roller coaster of the region’s weather, all within close proximity to one of the sites where American cuisine was born.
The farm-to-table movement is at once hip and historic. Some of the first arrivals to this continent settled not far from Hungry Mother in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. They would not have survived without the assistance of Native Americans and their repertoire of edible indigenous plants and animals, but they were intent on familiarizing these new foods by cooking them as they did back home. As Evan Jones writes in his book American Food, “The challenge was to apply English methods to whatever food supplies there might be.” Many of the resulting dishes, like corn bread, have become some of our strongest food traditions, and they are proof that local ingredients met with foreign cooking in New England centuries ago. English settlers adopted Native American cornmeal flatbreads to wheat bread recipes from back home, and corn bread as we know it was born. In Boston today, the constraint of cooking with local ingredients and European technique inspires chefs to no end.
Maiden serves his corn bread with a quickly vanishing lump of butter sweetened with sorghum syrup. It crackles and satisfies, it is perhaps the best of its kind, and it is a reminder that today’s farm-to-table movement has echoes of the past.
The restaurant Hungry Mother takes its name from a state park near the Virginia town where Maiden is from, and his birthplace has a bigger influence on his cooking than you might expect given the restaurant’s latitude. Maiden prepares New England ingredients with French technique and Southern influence. He offers an appetizer of ham and biscuits with pepper jelly; locally grown radishes; homemade butter; and toast topped with chicken livers puréed with apples, brandy and cream.
“I think the movement in the Boston area is really vibrant and exciting in terms of the variety and quality of the food people can eat here,” says Melissa Kogut, director of Chefs Collaborative, a Boston-based organization that promotes sustainability through fostering relationships between chefs and farmers. “It’s contagious,” she says, “in a good way.”
Kogut is correct: Boston is an incredibly fun city for restaurant-goers, whether you identify yourself as a foodie, locavore or neither. If you appreciate top-notch ingredients picked at the peak of their season and prepared with serious skill by eclectic chefs, you won’t be disappointed, though you’ll have a hard time deciding where to start.
Inside the Charles Hotel in Cambridge’s Harvard Square you’ll find Henrietta’s Table, a bright, handsome space presided over by the bearded and ponytailed chef Peter Davis. Davis sports a Boston accent and a commitment to sustainable food that earned him Chefs Collaborative’s second annual Sustainer Award for mentorship and modeling within the culinary community. At 17 years of age, Henrietta’s Table got its start well before the current farm-to-table movement, though its mission has always been in keeping with its tenets.
On the menu you’ll find dishes described by their ingredients’ place of origin. Verrill Farm blueberries and Westfield Farm chevre grace the spinach salad, for example. Most menu items say as much about the chef’s ethics as they do about the meal itself, as in one entree dubbed “Barbeque Ale Braised Elysian Field Farm’s Pulled Lamb Shank, Wilted Greens, Native Beans, Crispy Nitrate Free Smoked Bacon.”