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A New England Dish to Celebrate

Sometime before I was born, my parents were celebrating Christmas Eve. My dad was still a carpenter back then, and my mom worked at L. L. Bean. Her shift got off at 6:15 p.m. They were having their friends over for dinner (my soon-to-be godparents), and my mom wanted to serve pot roast to celebrate. She asked my dad to cook, and he agreed.

A New England Dish to Celebrate

When she walked in the door at 6:30, the house was curiously devoid of scent. My dad was standing in the kitchen, peeling and chopping, and she asked him what had happened to the plan. Slightly insulted, he informed her that he was making it! Couldn’t she see?

The thing about making pot roast is it takes three hours, maybe four. (I should say in my father’s defense that he has since come a long way.) My mother and father spent the next few minutes furiously chopping vegetables and cutting the meat into teeny tiny pieces, and by keeping the pot at a rolling boil, they managed to have dinner on the table at 7:15. While this is not recommended, it is certainly a nod to a long history of Yankee ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Pot roast is very much a New England dish, delicious despite its base of monotonous winter vegetables and inferior cuts of meat. There have been boiled meats and vegetables for centuries, but pot roast as we know it dates back to 1881, according to the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink.

The recipe my mother makes is from an older Joy of Cooking cookbook. It calls for a chuck, rump, or bottom round roast—tough, fatty cuts with excellent flavor that will eventually tenderize with heat. You dredge the meat in flour, brown it, and then throw some vegetables in.

What my mother uses varies depending on what she has on hand, but generally it’s the usual cast of carrots, potatoes, garlic, onion, or celery. Turnips are nice, as are parsnips, and she likes to add a bay leaf. Then it’s just red wine, water, and a pinch of salt, and dinner is on the stove.

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Elspeth Hay lives in Wellfleet

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