New England Yankee Skills, Arts and Traditions
These native skills, New England traditions and time-honored arts have survived through centuries of change. As the world becomes increasingly digital, will they be passed on to a new generation of hands?
New Hampshire folks and Yankees in general have always had a love-hate relationship with the seasons. Snow is nice for a spell, but not when it turns to road ice. Spring is sweet if you can stand the pollen and then the black flies. Summer would be a good time to go out if not for all the blasted motorcycles headed to Laconia. Don’t get us started on fall and the invasion of leaf peepers. But we do love to gripe about the weather. Constantly. It’s just one of our traditions.
Although we certainly enjoy a good complaint, in our own quiet way we also derive real joy and satisfaction from where we live and the traditions we keep.
In a good year, we fill up on chowder in winter, eat sugar on snow as spring approaches, devour fried clams in summer and reap the fall harvest with homemade apple pie. Those of us who grew up here had the good fortune to learn such traditions early. Others have moved here, recognized all that is good about this place and claimed it for themselves, fully participating in the rituals that connect us to something bigger.
It’s not just about the food, of course. When we learn traditional skills that have defined life here for centuries, whether it’s playing the fiddle at a contra dance, stitching a quilt, forging a tool, hunting or fishing, we celebrate what it means to be a local. Through our participation, we affirm that we belong here, proudly calling New Hampshire what it is — our home.
Practice Makes Perfect, Even When You're Just Fiddling Around
Imagine two people on opposite sides of a log using a two-handle saw to cut through wood. “That’s Yankee fiddling,” says Randy Miller. “There’s very little ornament in the melody. It’s very straightforward.”
This style of fiddling came about due to the hardscrabble nature of farming in New England, Miller says. After a long day in the fields, Yankees didn’t have much time to practice their fiddling. As a result, “there’s no subtlety. It’s a vigorous, strong style that’s very good for dancing.”
To demonstrate, Miller picks up a violin, an instrument he taught himself to play. The tune he plays gets right down to it, like two men sawing through a log. Yankee fiddling differs from the Irish style, which uses lots of embellishments such as trills and rolls to add ornament to tunes.
In rural New Hampshire towns, dancing to fiddle music used to be one of the few activities a community did together, Miller says. The traditional New England squares and contra dancing could not survive without fiddle music. And while people today have many more demands on their attention, neither the dancing nor the fiddling traditions completely died out in the Monadnock Region as they did elsewhere in New England, he says.
Because Yankee fiddle tunes are designed to move dancers through their figures, there’s “not a whole lot of improvisation, but I try to do it on a subtle basis,” says Miller.
He recalls the man who sat listening to him and a group of other traditional musicians play tunes in one of their monthly pub circles. When they finished, the man commented: “That music, it all sounds the same.” Miller still laughs at the memory. “For us, it’s 5,000 tunes we’re trying to learn!”
This Game is Serious Business: Tips on Field-Dressing a Moose
David Parent, 61, has been butchering since “my dad put a knife in my hand when I stood on a milk crate.”
Parent followed in the footsteps of his parents, who owned a meat store in Berlin. He’s taught butchering to his two sons, who run New Hampshire Guide Services with him. The outfit offers fishing and hunting adventures, including moose hunts. Parent doesn’t have time to guide; he’s too busy in the cutting room at the Mount Dustan Country Store in Wentworth Location, where he processes wild game, including deer, bear, elk, caribou and moose.
New Hampshire is one of the dozen or so states with enough of a moose population for a moose-hunting season, which takes place here in October. The state monitors the population to keep it healthy. This year, 124 hunting permits were awarded by lottery, down quite a bit from last year’s 248 permits. Ticks and lungworm have done a number on this year’s moose population, Parent says.
The first step of wild game processing begins with the hunter. A good harvest of meat starts with care in the shooting. It’s all about shot placement, Parent says. Ten shots, poorly placed, may not even kill a moose. Properly placed, “one round does the job.” New Hampshire Fish and Game recommends aiming at the heart, lungs or liver.
The hunter must also do a clean job of field-dressing the animal, which, in addition to removing the moose’s entrails, usually includes quartering to make handling easier. New Hampshire Fish and Game advises halving the animal through the bottom of the rib area and then sawing straight down the backbone of each half to create quarters.
Once Parent gets the moose, he takes a hose to it, washing and cleaning the meat, then wiping it down to avoid tainting.
While an adult moose can weigh from 600 to 1,400 pounds, Parent typically works on 700 to 900 pounders. He pieces everything out, and then works piece by piece on his regulation meat block. Even though a moose is a large animal, it’s leggy and necky without a lot of fat to remove, which makes the job go faster. In comparison, he notes, processing bear is tedious because of all the fat. A 700-pound moose takes four hours for him to butcher, depending on where it was shot. If it was shot in the front shoulder, for example, there will be a lot of bone fragments and blood clots to work around.
Done well, the end result is a lot of ground meat with an “excellent” taste similar to beef, Parent says. The older or bigger the animal is, the less tasty it is. For the best-tasting meat, you want to shoot a 500-pound moose, he says. That translates to about 200 pounds of meat after butchering.
By the way, he adds, New Hampshire hunters will typically keep the head of a bull moose if it has more than a 50-inch antler spread: “That’s considered a trophy.”
Quilting: Turn the Fabric of Your Life Into Useful Art
When she was 28, Pam Weeks visited the Museum of Western Expansion in Missouri. As she peered into a trunk filled with a pioneer woman’s antique quilts and fabrics, she felt a flash of déjà vu. “I had that fabric once,” she thought.
It was a mystical moment, a breadcrumb that would lead to her current job as curator of the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Mass.
“I use every modern technique available to me, but I have a deep, deep love and respect for the old ways,” Weeks says. “I come from a long line of craftspeople, but I am the first one to do quilting as an avocation and vocation.”
During the mid-1970s when Weeks attended college, women’s magazines were filled with articles on quilting, macramé and sewing due to bicentennial fever and the back-to-earth hippie movement. She began making traditional calico quilts. By 1990, she was an art quilter, designing and making quilts based in tradition but using nontraditional colors.
In 1991, she took a class on antique quilts. She couldn’t afford to buy old quilts, so she reproduced them. That led to becoming a quilt historian and a quilt appraiser. Her book, “Civil War Quilts,” was published in 2013 by Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
Many myths about quiltmaking in New England exist, Weeks says. For instance, “patchwork quilts were not always made out of necessity.” From the Revolutionary War to 1830, upper-class women made quilts as well, using silks and wools imported from England and France. Some New Englanders made quilts with repurposed fabrics until the American textile industry exploded in the mid-1800s. Only then did cheap cotton prints become available, making it more affordable to purchase fabric for quilts.
“The cost of cotton went down from dollars per yard to pennies per yard,” Weeks says. Only poorer women recycled clothing scraps to make patchwork quilts; most bought the material — even in frugal New Hampshire.
Two quilting fads hit New England in the late 1800s: charm quilts, in which no two identical pieces of fabric were used; and multitudinous quilts, which consisted of thousands of pieces of fabric. Some editorials of the day chastised women for their attention to such matters, saying if they kept making these time-intensive quilts, they’d never have time to find a husband.
A Blacksmith Forges a Livelihood Out of White-Hot Metal
When Steve Ash tells people he’s a blacksmith, they ask if he shoes horses. That’s a farrier, he tells them. It’s a different trade. “In reality, I’m a metal worker,” he says.
He just uses a different approach than a modern shop that bolts or welds metal together. Just as during Colonial times, Ash’s primary tool is fire, which he uses to heat wrought iron or steel to the point where it’s malleable. “Metal is plastic, so to speak,” he says. “You can go anywhere with it. You’re limited only by your imagination.”
The other basic tools of the trade haven’t changed much either: In addition to the fire, there’s the hammer and the tongs, which are used to hold the metal while it’s being hammered on an anvil. Replacing bellows with electric blowers is one of the few nods to modernity.
Both of Ash’s forges have electric blowers. “Air is fuel,” Ash explains. “When the fire is at idle — with no air — it will barely turn a piece red. Red hot is dead cold in blacksmithing. A simple fan blows air through a pipe that feeds into the bottom of the fire pot. The fan runs at a constant, and the air blast is controlled by a sliding gate that regulates how much air/temperature you want.”
Ash has been making a living as a blacksmith since 2007, forging hinges, handles, brackets, table lamps, chandeliers, fireplace fronts and more.
When he needs a new tool for a project, he makes one, much as his predecessors did. The blacksmithing trade has always been known for its Yankee ingenuity and self-sufficiency. “The old tools still work better than modern tools because they were used by the people who made them,” says Ash, who is surrounded by antique tools in his neat-as-a-pin workshop. “I look at old things to try and understand how they did it. Tools tell us stories.”
In addition to teaching, Ash works on a handful of major projects throughout the year, clients coming to him through word of mouth. He doesn’t have a website, but he does have a Facebook page. His clients are fed up with America’s fascination with speed and cost-cutting at the expense of aesthetics and character. They, like him, crave craftsmanship.
“The pace of today is overwhelming to me,” he admits. “My clock doesn’t jibe with the world’s clock.”
Blending Time and Tradition: The Recipes for True Yankee Meals
When author Edie Clark thinks of typical Yankee food, she thinks of slow-cooked baked beans served with steamed Boston brown bread, Indian pudding cooked just right, clam chowder made — naturally — with milk and fried clams. She thinks of apple pie made the way the late New England writer Haydn Pearson described in his cookbooks — using the Northern Spy apple (tarter and crunchier than most), served with cheddar cheese.
The Northern Spy variety has become hard to find, which is a shame because it weathered the winter beautifully in the cellar, staying delicious until April, Clark says. She’s had to switch to Macoun apples for her pies. “You have to have cheddar cheese, that goes without saying,” she says. “It’s like saying it needs crust.”
These foods people identify as New England come with “a very deeply felt emotional bond,” she says. “When we eat fried clams or clam chowder, we are in New England — no matter where we are. We’re in a place that is dear to us.”
Indian pudding is also “very Yankee,” Clark says. She adores it but finds that many people, victims of poorly made versions, harbor disdain for it. The secret is that you need to cook the pudding for long enough to get the consistency you want, which is like cement, Clark says. The pudding sweetens as it cooks. When she was younger, Indian pudding was a typical menu item in New England restaurants, but that’s gone by the wayside in these time-pressured times.
She recalls with fondness the baked bean church fundraiser suppers she and her late husband, Paul, used to help out with. Their pastor made the beans for years until it became too much for her. Other church ladies always pitched in with homemade meatballs, coleslaw and pies. Not only was it a fabulous moneymaker for the church, it built a sense of community. “The company was great,” Clark reminisces.
At the end of supper, the ladies would come out and serve great-smelling coffee they’d made in large percolators. Clark says she isn’t much of a coffee drinker, but she still remembers how good that coffee smelled, calling it the best coffee in the world — not for its taste but for the feeling it evoked.
“It was a feeling of real comfort that everything is right with the world,” she says.
Want to try some classic New England dishes?
Try these recipes, reprinted with permission from Edie Clark’s book “Saturday Beans & Sunday Suppers,” published by Powersbridge Press and available online.
Vermont Baked Beans*
2 pounds navy or pea beans
1 small onion
1 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground pepper
Using a good ceramic two-quart bean pot with lid, soak the beans overnight till they double. In the morning, drain and rinse and then, in separate pan, parboil until the skins crack when you blow on them. Drain. Cut the onion in half and place in the bottom of the bean pot. Pour the cooked beans into the bean pot. Mix together the maple syrup, vinegar and dry spices, and add 1 cup of boiling water. Pour this mixture over the beans. Add enough boiling water to cover the beans. Cover the pot and bake in a slow oven (250 degrees) for 6 to 8 hours. Keep an eye on them and add more boiling water if the beans look dry.
*Even though “Vermont” is in the name of this recipe, Clark insists that it translates to any New England state — Vermont’s just always done a better job of marketing itself, she says.
4 cups milk
1/3 cup cornmeal
1 cup molasses
1/4 cup butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ginger
In the top of a double boiler, bring the milk to a boil. Whisk in the cornmeal. Cook the mixture for 15 minutes. Add the molasses; stir and cook for five more minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and pour the batter into a greased baking dish. Bake in a slow oven, 300 degrees, for at least three hours. Serves 6.
It's your turn: What New England Yankee traditions, recipes and sayings do you hold dear? What makes New Hampshire stand out in particular? Let us know in the comments, on our Facebook page or send us a tweet (@nhmagazine).