Last Morsel—Reliving History through Food in Burlington
Written onMay 20 , 2015
I swirled the creamy beans, sweet chunks of zucchini, and crunchy corn niblets in the last of the lemon-herb vinaigrette at the bottom of my dish. This salad had a story to tell, and I was hungry to hear it. Lucky for me, I was in the right place: Sugarsnap restaurant at the Echo Center, the first stop on the Burlington Edible History Tour.
The tour’s creators and co-leaders, Gail Rosenberg and Elise Guyette, “asked us to prepare something that represented the early local residents and their staple crops,” says Deanna Hunt of Sugarsnap. So the restaurant decided to feature the “three sisters” of Native American agriculture: squash, beans, and corn. Many of the vegetables were grown just a few miles away at Sugarsnap’s garden at the Intervale, a 700-acre tract of land along the Winooski River that was hunted and farmed for millennia, first by the Native Americans and then by European settlers and American colonists. Today, vegetable farms, chicken coops, and beehives line the dirt road leading into the fields.
Gail and Elise have enthusiastically set out to share their knowledge gained through copious research into the foodways and traditions of the various ethnic groups who have made Burlington their home. On the September afternoon when I went on the tour, the pair led our group on a leisurely two-mile stroll through the city’s downtown, stopping frequently to point out a historic building or to share a tale of an immigrant’s contribution to Vermont’s culture.
Daniel Caudle, manager of Church & Main, literally threw open his door to Gail and Elise on a blustery day in the early months of 2014. His intent had been just to provide shelter from the inclement weather, but after learning about their plans for interpreting the Queen City’s history through food, he was in. “Almost every restaurant on Church Street was owned by immigrants from Greece, and [this location] did not buck the trend,” he told me.
Although usually preparing American bistro fare, chef Trevor Smith borrowed from the eatery’s Hellenic background to develop his tasting menu for the tour. As I sliced into the juicy Mediterranean-herb-crusted pork loin on a savory bed of orzo studded with kalamata olives and feta cheese, my eye caught the red-and-white stained-glass panel on the wall. “Candy Shop,” it read, a reminder to patrons of the restaurant’s history as a Greek-run confectioner’s shop.
We found our sweet break at Burlington’s bicycle café, Maglianero. The tart, lime-flavored frozen yogurt—a nod to the coffeehouse’s location in what was once a Lebanese neighborhood—paired perfectly with its bookends of not-super-sweet chocolate graham-flour cookies. These grown-up treats emerged from the hands of Andrew Lestourgeon, pastry chef at renowned Hen Of The Wood, a Vermont restaurant synonymous with local and foraged ingredients.
Menus from the city’s past inspired the day’s final food tasting. Chef Doug Paine of the Hotel Vermont’s Juniper was thrilled to host a stop on the tour. “I told Gail about some old Hotel Vermont menus from the 1920s and 1930 I had seen, and one thing that stuck out to me was that they all had some sort of local fish on them.” At one time, residents of all nationalities feasted on salmon, trout, and other species from the lake. However, by the 1900s, the stocks had been depleted, due to development and the building of dams and canals. Further industrial growth polluted the water, leading to the perception that local catch was unfit to eat.
Doug, who is also chef at Bleu Northeast Seafood, is active in trying to rehabilitate the image of Lake Champlain’s fish: “The idea is, you have to eat it to save it,” he said. The tender perch fingers he offered us certainly enticed me to follow his advice. And keeping to the locavore theme, it was stone-ground flint cornmeal from Butterworks Farms in Westfield that formed the perch’s nutty, crisp coating.
Gastronomic writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” From what I sampled on that afternoon, I could see that Burlington’s cuisine and culture has resulted from the serendipitous mixing and melding of cultures, with no single influence standing above the others. The addition of food traditions from more recent arrivals can only add more spice to the mix.
To find out the dates of this year’s Burlington Edible History Tour, go to burlingtonediblehistory.com. Gail and Elise have committed to donating 10 percent of their profits from the tour to New Farms for New Americans, a project of the Association of Africans Living in Vermont.
Pamela Hunt lives in South Burlington and writes about travel, food, and general Vermont goings-on. Follow her at pamelahunt.com.