Good Taste : Island diet is rooted in the earth and sea
File photo by Susan Safford
What is Martha's Vineyard cuisine? People travel from around the world to pick apart lobsters while watching the sun set or to sample our hearty clam chowders. But that isn't what we eat regularly. Historically, a variety of factors contributed to the makeup of the foods and recipes found on Martha's Vineyard.
Agriculture and an abundance of wild foodstuffs created the building blocks of Island cuisine that were influenced by Colonial traditions and teachings of the Wampanoags, while shipping and whaling brought goods and people from foreign lands that contributed to the recipes and foods that we find on the Island today.
Surrounded by the ocean and brackish ponds, Islanders could get an endless bounty from the water. Trout and smelt filled Island brooks, and ponds were abundant with eels and white perch. Eel Stifle became a common dish associated with the Vineyard. Many New England and Island cookbooks featured recipes for Martha's Vineyard Eel Stifle, a layered dish of potatoes, onion and eel, held together with flour and water and topped with salt pork and pork fat. Although I have never tasted this dish, it was quite popular in its day and not many visitors left the Island without trying it. Besides eels, streams were overrun with herring, which were smoked, salted, pickled or eaten fresh. A staple in the diet of Islanders, herring became known as Edgartown turkey, or Old Town turkey.
Today, chowder is ubiquitous on the Island. It is available on the ferry ride over and at almost every restaurant and take-out joint on the Vineyard. Chefs pride themselves on their chowder and constantly debate about the ingredients of a proper chowder. We even have a chowder contest every winter to determine which chowder reigns supreme. Thin or thick, cream or broth, fish or clam — the possibilities are endless. Traditionally, chowders were made out of fish and shellfish, combinations of whatever was caught that day or given to the cook, resulting in various tastes and textures. But fish and clam weren't the only chowders served on Island tables. Chowders made of eggs, chicken, beef, shellfish, lobsters, eels and corn are included in many Island cookbooks. They are emblematic of the people of Martha's Vineyard, known for making due with what is on hand.
In the early days when milk wasn't readily available, a thin slurry of ground corn was the base for chowders, to which fish, shellfish, eels or salted meat, such as venison, was added. Potatoes came later, after they were allegedly introduced to the Island by John Pease, who settled in Edgartown in 1656. The story goes that Pease had eaten potatoes in the Virginia colony, and one autumn when the crops were failing on the Vineyard, he bartered for a few potatoes from a trading ship and added them to his chowder. The rest is history. Besides potatoes, chowder was often thickened with crushed ship biscuits, hard crackers that were staples on long voyages.
Salt pork was used to flavor chowder but usually taken out before it was served. Today you can still find remnants of this tradition in some Vineyard chowders that leave salty bits of browned pork behind.
Chicken chowder in particular was an Island favorite, and at one point it could be found at the West Tisbury farmer's market. A combination of chicken, water, salt pork, onions, potatoes and milk, this chowder could be thickened or not and was said to be better served the next day.
Grown in Vineyard fields, fertilized by herring, rockweed and manure, corn and rye were the most important field crops, which were ground into flour at the grist mills. Corn bread, brown bread and a combination of the two called ryaninjun bread formed the foundation of the Vineyard diet. Brown bread was eaten with almost everything. If the bread became too tough, Vineyard housewives steamed it until it became soft again. Nothing was wasted: the crumbs were mixed with milk to create a type of porridge and when there were coffee shortages, it was said that dried crusts of brown bread were steeped in water and used as a coffee substitute.
Whaling brought diversity, new cooking methods and ingredients to the Island through its crews. Portuguese came to the Island in large numbers, first as seamen on merchant vessels, and later as whale men, primarily from the Azores. This community introduced new flavors and ingredients to the Island that were quickly adopted into the Vineyard repertoire such as linquica, chorizo, kale soup and massa sovada (Portuguese sweet bread).
These days, food from all over the globe can be found in Vineyard markets, alongside locally grown and caught food. Eel Stifle no longer graces our menus, chicken chowder can't be found at the farmer's market, and brown bread is rarely eaten, but traditions have carried on. Many Islanders still depend on the land and sea for their livelihood and new traditions are formed each year. Gardening, hunting, fishing, and foraging supplement many of our diets and connect us with the Island and all it has to offer. Brazilian and Jamaican restaurants and markets have popped up next to institutions that have been serving generations of Island families. This is the nature of the Vineyard — a mixture of old and new, the past blended with the present. We'll see what the future brings.
What are your favorite Vineyard dishes and food traditions? What restaurants do you miss and what dishes do you long for? Write me at email@example.com.