New England has given birth to many an iconic food. The exact birthplace, however, of such beloved treats as the fluffernutter sandwish, the needham and the New York System wiener is shrouded in mystery.
We did manage to pin down a locations for some of the iconic foods that millions of people have enjoyed over the centuries. Here are six, one in each New England state.
A peasant meal brought from 19th century Italy evolved into New Haven’s famous white clam apizza. It’s been praised as an ‘intoxicating combination of romano cheese, fresh garlic, olive oil, parsley, and clams atop the chewy and charred oblong pies.’
Frank Pepe began selling hot pizza – he called it apizza — to his fellow Italian immigrants who sold their wares in New Haven’s open-air market. He had gotten a job at a bakery and sold the ‘tomato pies’ on his own time. Eventually he bought out his employer and in 1925 opened Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, where he invented the New Haven-style thin crust pizza.
But the landlords kicked him out, so he bought the building next door at 163 Wooster Street. He began selling clams on the half-shell, finally deciding to put them on his apizza. If fresh clams weren’t available, he didn’t sell white clam apizza.
White clam apizza became an iconic food in New Haven dish, and Pepe’s is still serving it up. Frank Pepe died in 1969, but his family carried on the business and has expanded into New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and other Connecticut cities.
157 Wooster St., New Haven, Conn.
The Modern Donut
In Rockport, Maine, you’ll find a historic marker on the parsonage of the Nativity Lutheran Church. It marks the birthplace of a sea captain named Hansen Gregory, who claimed to have invented the modern donut. Enough people believed him that he got the plaque.
Late in life, while living at the Sailor’s Snug Harbor in Quincy, Mass., Capt.Gregory told the Washington Post how he’d come about his invention. Back when he was a 16-year-old cook aboard a coasting schooner, he took long strips of dough, bent them in half and twisted them into shape. He called them twisters. The outsides fried up all right, but the insides remained raw and the bent part sopped up all the grease. He thought a hole in the middle might solve the problem. So he took the top of a pepper pot and, he said, cut into the middle of that donut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes.
That was in 1858. Captain Gregory had a tinsmith make a donut cutter, and he showed his mother how to make donuts. She served them around Camden, and the donut never looked back. The donut that made her son famous. His story does comport with what food historians know about donuts.
179 Old County Rd., Rockport, Maine
In Massachusetts, Boston and Cambridge in 1950 ruled candy making in the United States, with 140 candy companies between them. The Necco candy factory in Cambridge could claim the biggest candy factory in the world – the Necco Candy Factory.
Necco, which stands for New England Candy Company, started out in 1847 when a Boston pharmacist invented a machine that cut lozenges from sugar paste. Soon he was making sugar wafers for Union Army soldiers in the Civil War. The company became Necco in 1901, and continued to make Necco Wafers and conversation hearts in a brick complex in South Boston.
You can see where those old-fashioned candies were made if you head to the old Fort Point Channel neighborhood by the Summer Street Bridge. Look for the decaying brick buildings on Necco Court and Necco Street. General Electric was going to clean off the graffiti and spruce up the buildings for a new headquarters, but that didn’t happen.
Necco moved to that great big factory in Cambridge, then to nearby Revere. It still made about eight billion conversation hearts a year. That wasn’t enough to save the company, though, and Necco filed for bankruptcy protection in 2018. Ohio-based Spangler Candy bought the company, and production of conversation hearts stopped while production equipment moved out of Massachusetts.
35 Necco Court, Boston, Mass.
Back in the eighteenth century, Massachusetts Puritans viewed New Hampshire as a dangerous wilderness. So when several shiploads of Scots-Irish arrived in Boston, the Puritan leaders saw them as a terrific buffer against unfriendly Indians, French Catholics and other scary things. So they sent them off to southern New Hampshire.
The Puritans might not have sent the Scots-Irish packing had they known what they brought with them.
In 1719, a group of Scots-Irish settled Nutfield, which evolved into the towns of Derry, Londonderry, Windham, and part of Manchester. When they arrived, they planted the first white potato in North America.
A historic marker in front of the First Parish Church in historic East Derry notes the historic planting of the spud:
The marker reads, “In April 1719, sixteen Presbyterian Scotch-Irish families settled here in two rows of cabins along West Running Brook easterly of Beaver Brook. Initially known as Nutfield, the settlement became Londonderry in 1723. The first year, a field was planted, known as the Common Field, where the potato was first grown in North America.”
47 E Derry Rd, East Derry, N.H.
Rhode Island has no shortage of iconic food. The little state has a big appetite for such local favorites as coffee milk, New York system wieners, Del’s lemonade, cabinets, stuffies and zeppole. But their exact geographic origin is hard to pin down, as they all had peripatetic histories. They either started in food trucks or carts, or emerged simultaneously from a dense immigrant neighborhood.
So clams casino seemed the logical choice, even though their origin is a tad murky. A chef named Julius Keller claimed in 1937 he invented the dish while employed at the Narragansett Pier Casino, which was a Gilded Age resort rather than a gambling hall. Keller wrote in his memoirs that a Mrs. Paran Stevens had asked for a special clam dish for her eight guests. He came up with a new spin on the old classic of stuffed clams, adding bacon, peppers, and butter to the chopped clams, bread crumbs, and garlic.
Keller’s claim can’t be verified, but it’s certainly plausible. The Narragansett Pier Casino burned down twice, but its stone towers still stand as a recognizable beachfront landmark.
35 Ocean Rd., Narragansett, R.I.
Cabot Cheddar Cheese
Overproductive cows led to Vermont’s most iconic food.
In 1919, Vermont cows produced too much milk for Vermont farmers to sell. So 94 farmers ponied up $3,700 to start a cooperatively owned creamery in the town of Cabot. They started off making butter and shipping it south.
Then in 1930 they made their first cheddar cheese. Cabot cheeses, butters and yogurts have since won well over a hundred awards. Wine Spectator put Cabot cloth-bound cheddar on its list of the hundred best cheeses in the world.
Cabot expanded in Vermont with creameries in Quechee and Waterbury and a store in Portland, Maine. In 1992 it merged with a southern New England cooperative called Agri-Mark. Today the Cabot Creamery has a visitor’s center where you can buy Cabot cheddar and other Vermont specialty products.
2878 Main Street, Cabot, Vt.
Images: Cabot Creamery, By http://www.cabotcheese.coop, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14921783; First Parish Church, First Parish Church of East Derry By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24513489; Frank Pepe sign, By Krista – frank pepe exterior, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38640336. This story was updated in 2021.