Culinary Roots

A Conversation Between Lynne Curry ’87 and Marc Sheehan ’07

When Holy Cross Magazine asked me, Lynne (Sampson) Curry ’87, to interview Marc Sheehan ‘07, a James Beard 2016 “Rising Star of the Year” semifinalist and the chef-owner of Loyal Nine in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I had no idea how much we shared in common. I’m a food journalist, cookbook author, blogger and former restaurateur who has lived in the Pacific Northwest for over 25 years, and I have an abiding love for New England’s culinary roots. Marc’s 18-month-old restaurant, Loyal Nine, is the first historically based restaurant serving New England revival dishes, like soused (pickled) blue fish on  brown bread. Relying on seasonal products and heritage ingredients, this Colonial-inspired restaurant has been hailed by both Bon Appetit and Eater as a 2015 best new restaurant, and The Boston Globe called it “one of the most interesting restaurants in the city.”

At Holy Cross, Marc and I both majored in history. Despite the 20 years between graduation dates, our studies triggered awareness for each of us about the connections between food and the larger political, social and cultural events of the past and present. This is the underpinning of my food journalism and of Marc’s restaurant.

Read an excerpt of our phone conversation, where Marc and I discuss what maple syrup has to do with abolition, why you won’t find chowder on the menu at Loyal Nine and how our liberal arts educations guide our daily work as writer and chef.

Marc: When we were opening the restaurant, we were thinking a lot about what to call the style of food we were going to try to do, what to call the type of restaurant. The term we focused on was East Coast revival, and I think that the word revival is the key point. It’s trying to revive and bring back to the forefront what actual food in New England was. It wasn’t just the recipes, it wasn’t just the dishes that people were eating, it was the ingredients, it was the way of purchasing them, it was knowing the person who produced the food that you’re about to eat. And, you know, for whatever reason and there are a lot of factors, but in New England we were the first region to sort of abandon our true culinary heritage and how we sourced our product. And as things have started to change, we’ve been the last people to really revive it, to recapture it.

Lynne: You see this happening in other regions of the country. The Southern Foodways Alliance is this real rediscovery of heritage southern foods. How much has that inspired what you’re doing with the East Coast revival? In fact, you’ve coined that term.

Marc: I appreciate you saying that. The word revival is very important because it’s not like I’m making it up. This is what the food was … this is what either their ancestors were eating or people who had lived in this region once considered to be dinner. And for whatever reason, we lost that. To me, that’s kind of sad. If you go to other parts of the country, you can have people talk to their grandparents about what they cook and they’re still making that for their kids today. Whereas when you are in most homes in the New England area, that isn’t necessarily the case.

Lynne: One of the things I think about is food as social history. We were both history majors, and I was reflecting that I had that first “aha moment” in terms of food as a relevant and legitimate part of our history when I was taking a European history course with Professor Theresa McBride. What people ate, how they were getting their food and who was getting which food, these were all a significant part of the history of what was going on politically. Was there any particular point in time when you had a similar sort of trigger in terms of the role of food in our history?

Marc: It’s funny that you can remember the exact moment, class and professor, because I had the exact same thing. I was taking Colonial American history with Professor Ross Beales, it was my senior year, and I knew I wanted to cook, so I was always sort of on the lookout for stuff involving food. I was going through a database, and I found a document written by Benjamin Rush, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, to Thomas Jefferson, who at the time was secretary of state. It was a study on the maple syrup industry in Vermont, and how the United States could sort of expand and exploit the already existing maple syrup industry economically. So it was basically just a study on the economics of maple syrup. And right at the end of the document, Rush, who was a noted abolitionist, just threw in this bit about how if we could increase maple syrup production we could phase out all West Indian sugar from the new United States and therefore eradicate the slave trade. You know, he used some term like, “that miserable enterprise.” And it was just something that struck me, that you had this interconnectivity between early abolitionists, two people at the highest levels of government talking about this, and it was being brought up over maple syrup. And that was the first moment for me where I thought, there has to be more of this, there has to be more to the story, as well as probably some delicious foods.

Lynne: We historians, we love this stuff, but speaking to a public audience through the medium of a restaurant, how did you think this was going to resonate with people and not just be interesting, archaic information?

Marc: You know, we’ve been open a year and a half, so it’s still something that’s very much a work in progress. With anything where you’re trying to do something different, particularly with food, you always have to factor in that, one, someone has to choose to buy this and, two, that they’re going to put it in their mouth. If you can’t make it sound appetizing and be delicious once they eat it, what’s the point of me trying to make some statement if ultimately you’re not going to have a good dish? We’ve put some stuff out there that hasn’t really resonated with guests and as a result we’ve changed course a little bit at times. Usually it’s more like a dish here, a dish there, rather than a grand sweeping fault.

Lynne: I think part of what you’re doing through a restaurant—or, if you’re writing, as I do—is educating people. You want to inform them of something and they are looking for an experience. So I think you can play with that but only within reason, right?

Marc: For the most part, people are coming in with an open mind and they’re willing to try things. On the other side, we did a dish with this old seasoning element called mushroom ketchup, where we had this rich, acidic, mushroom-like juice that we were folding into a mushroom purée with roasted mushrooms, serving it on toast with braised conch. And it was something that people just did not like. And as proud of it as we were, as historically relevant as the technique was, it just didn’t work. So we can reapproach it at some point, maybe try to fix it, do some tweaks to it, but, you know, we’ve made the decision of, well, if people don’t like it, let’s not serve it. I’m not going to teach anyone anything by serving them something that they don’t want to actually eat.

Lynne: Absolutely.

Marc: For us, that’s where the balance is: finding those dishes that make a point and are ultimately delicious.