All over the world, no matter the environment, there are species that thrive and species that struggle. Some species are native to an area, some immigrate, and some invade. There are invasive species that thrive and coexist peacefully, there are some that throw off the balance of the local ecosystem, and there are some that don’t survive well.
How is this relevant to food? The produce, bacteria, fungi, etc., that make up our food also make up our ecosystem and are among those species mentioned above. All food has its own environment in which it thrives.
Rowan Jacobsen (2010) talks about terroir and the Americas in his book American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields. With the northeastern U.S. in mind, let’s also talk about terroir (pronounced “teh-rwah.”)
What is terroir?
Merriam-Webster and most other sources you read define terroir as:
“noun., the combination of factors, including soil, climate, and sunlight, that gives wine grapes their distinctive character.”
If the word looks like it was borrowed directly from another language, it’s because it was: terroir means “soil, region, or locality” in French (not surprising, then, that it is predominantly used to describe wine.)
Not too long ago, though, people in various parts of the food industry started seeing that those factors are relevant to more than just wine: chocolate, coffee, even apples have terroir. Therefore, we can redefine the word:
“noun., the various features of an area, biome, or ecosystem that contribute to the physical qualities of food.”
In short, terroir is how your environment shapes your food.
Just like you wouldn’t say that someone from Brooklyn is not defined by Brooklyn, or that someone from Eugene has never been influenced by Eugene, you also can’t say that food has a quality without attaching to that food the qualities of its birthplace. An apple isn’t just an apple: it’s an apple from the northeastern United States or an apple from the Pacific Northwest.
The terroir of the Northeast
Perhaps what the northeastern states are most known for is seafood. The cold, northern Atlantic waters produce some of the best seafood in the country, and the coastal states, therefore, are known for some of the country’s favorite seafood dishes: lobster rolls, crab cakes, clam chowders, and so on.
But there’s more to the region than the sumptuous seafood: we can also find maple syrup in the woods of Vermont; apples, cranberries, and elderberries grow in orchards throughout the area; sturdy squash prevail through the long, cold winters; and nuts of various types abound up north.
Foods Indigenous to the Northeast with Recipe Links
Listed below are some of the foods that have been used in the northeast as long as people have lived here, each with a few recipe suggestions to get the most out of the environment.
Beans (Navy, Lima)
For people inspired by seasonality and locality, terroir is one more tool to add your cooking toolbelt, and you don’t even need to be a wine connoisseur to appreciate what it means.
Jacobsen, R. (2010). American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields. Bloomsbury, USA: New York, NY.