This July, we're pledging allegiance to the food that makes this country great—specifically, the exciting things happening in our nation's culinary scene right now. Join us as we explore America!
Today’s leading restaurant in true Colonial-era food started with a fantasy of making the best pasta in the world.
“I had this dream of going to Italy and quickly realized I had no connection to the food beyond just liking it,” Marc Sheehan says. He’s the chef at Loyal Nine in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a restaurant that’s showing everyone exactly what Colonial revival-style cuisine is and why they should care. His New England roots and history-focused studies in college made it clear where his true connections lie as he started mapping out his culinary future.
Sheehan now uses his deft hand to tell the untold story of New England’s bounty. He calls toasted brown bread with smoked bluefish and tangy cream “the beginner’s course in New England food” (see the recipe). Perhaps that has to do with the molasses-sweetened brown bread, which is familiar enough to reel people in. The wheat-, rye- and cornmeal-based loaf dates back to Puritan times, when it was steamed rather than baked—due to a general lack of ovens—first in pudding bags then in coffee cans, as they still do at Loyal Nine today. “People were eating it back then, so we’re figuring out how to get people to eat it now.”
Chef Marc Sheehan | Photo: Cody O'Loughlin
Things smattered on toast will always lure people in. It’s the chicken and oysters or periwinkles in broth that might take some convincing for first-timers. Sheehan spent time parsing through online databases of church cookouts, lists of ingredients that were being sold at the time and many old cookbooks to compose the menu at Loyal Nine, which opened last spring. He looked into seasoning methods and cooking techniques that were around in Colonial times, hence the whole cooking-bread-in-a-can situation.
But don’t let the word Colonial throw you off: You won’t see waiters strolling around in tricornered hats, or taking orders with a quill. If you weren’t any the wiser, you could be at yet another small-plates spot. There’s an open kitchen, an outdoor seating area and other modern restaurant joys like brunch and tequila.
Two hundred years may have passed between the early Americans putting down their forks and Sheehan taking up a knife, but he’s figured out how to balance that with work-arounds. “If you look at the descriptions of what that food tasted like or what the visuals were, you can find something that’s similar,” he says. And while french fry-starved eyes might glaze past finnan haddie mousse or marinated mussels with pease pudding and sauerkraut, Sheehan knows it just takes some restructuring to get people on board: “It’s really just chips and dip.”
The focus is definitively coastal, but Sheehan takes care to do right by history. “We don’t want to do what people consider New England food to be—chowder, baked beans, Indian pudding—the things that are bastardized versions of what the food was actually like.” His Colonial revival era includes dishes everywhere from the 1770s up to the 1840s, right before the Civil War, when people started inserting sugar, fat and generous spices into the food.
“Initially, there were a lot of people pulling out their phones and trying to Google stuff to figure out what they were actually about to eat,” Sheehan says. But he’s finding that people are accepting this gastronomical history lesson with open arms. “When you eat it, the food resonates on a familiar level.”