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What Is N.H. Food?

This week on All Things Considered we’re kicking off a feature on local food, which we’re calling Foodstuffs.

Local food is growing in New Hampshire – both in its size and its popularity. But it can be difficult to explain just what makes our state's food unique. NHPR's Brady Carlson takes us on a quest to find the answer.

If you want to find the definitive New Hampshire food, you have to ask the people who know the food best. That's why I'm here at Gould Hill Farm, for the Contoocook Winter Farmer's Market. Winter is a technical term here – it's the last week before the market moves downtown and outdoors.

There are just eight vendors here, but Beth Salerno knows them all - she stops by one table to picks up some greens, stops by another to get some meat… Beth's husband, Tod, grabs some baked goods. They're here every weekend.

“We cook most of our own food. When we do eat out we choose a restaurant that’s sourced locally...”

Salerno was into local food before local food was cool – she ran a bakery, helped set up a farm share system in the Concord area, she has a root cellar at her home in Weare… when I ask her what comes to mind when she thinks of New Hampshire food, I’m expecting sharp cheddar cheese, maybe some seafood, blueberries...

Far be it from me to dispute the Zen-like quality of a hot, fresh cider donut. But New Hampshire prides itself on its rural character. Is our culinary stock in trade really something doughy and fried?

”I’m not sure there’s a distinctive New Hampshire food but there’s a distinctive New Hampshire way of growing and buying and to some extent preparing it.”

Maybe she has a point. After all, every New Hampshire ingredient that comes to mind has a tie, often a stronger tie, to other states. Case in point: the potato. Settlers in Derry were the first to plant the versatile tuber in the New World, and because of that the New Hampshire legislature voted this year to name the white potato our state vegetable. 

It's a high honor, I'm sure, but I'm also sure potato growers in Idaho and Maine aren't losing any sleep over it.   

So if our food is less about what we grow than about how we prepare it... what's the recipe that best defines New Hampshire food? 

“I don’t think anybody could tell you what NH food is.”

Helen Brody manages the New Hampshire Farms Network. She's written books about New Hampshire farms and early American recipes.

“And you could say the same thing about what is a NH recipe. And they really don’t vary too much throughout New England –cause recipes a lot are determined by climate.”

Brody says if you can find any straight line in our culinary tradition here, it's that New Hampshire cooks used what they had. 

“I was talking to a sugarer – where we use maple syrup in everything that we cook for any kind of sugar substitute, someone else may use brown sugar or something else. If there are apples nearby, you'll see apples in everything.”

But isn't there even a single recipe that might sum up New Hampshire food?

One of the first things you’ll see on the wall at Republic in Manchester is a board, where chef and co-owner Edward Aloise lists the farms that supply his restaurant.

“Heartsong Farm goat cheese…. that’s just for lunch – I have no idea what I’m doing for dinner yet.”

Republic's ingredients are locally sourced – but if you've come for a local-style recipe, as I kind of have... well...

“On our menu: Turkish influences, Lebanese influences, French, Spanish…”

I'm just about to start scratching my head out of complete confusion - and then Aloise makes it all clear:

“NH food is historically not necessarily the ingredients but how it has been distributed to the residents here… there’s that kind of a one on one historical relationship between the farmer/raiser and the customer… it’s unique to the state – not like that in Maine, not like that in Massachusetts, not in upstate NY.”

And as soon as he says the word “relationship” I get it. He's saying what defines New Hampshire food isn't the ingredients, or the recipes, but the attitude, the give and take between growers and consumers, chefs and suppliers. The expectation that people can – and should – be informed and get involved.

Aloise says his customers do that every day. 

“Our guests are appreciative of the fact that they can grill the staff…This whole thing is not unique to NH but the attitude is totally NH.”

That’s not to say the food isn’t good – Beth Salerno says she buys local for the flavors. But she says what goes into those flavors matters too.

“For me what makes it New Hampshire is that it’s all grown by NHites – and mostly long term NHites. Apples – you can get apples from Washington – I get apples from Apple Hill, or Gould Hill, I know who grew my apples, I know they’re a long term family in the area, their trees have been here longer than I have – that makes it a NH apple.”

And if some of that New Hampshire apple should end up in a piping hot cider donut before the end of the season, so much the better. 

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