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Burlington’s Edible History: The Original Farm-to-Table Movement

Words // Pamela Hunt
Photos // Alison Redlich

Vermont has a reputation of being one of the least diverse states in the country. However, the history of immigration in Burlington, the Green Mountain State’s largest city and economic hub, reveals a different story, one in which each successive wave of newcomers has shared its individual culture and food traditions. For those who settled here, the farm-to-table movement wasn’t just a fad: It was a way of life.

Eager to learn more about this culinary syncretism, I joined two local researchers and educators, Elise Guyette and Gail Rosenberg, on their newly launched Burlington Edible History Tour. As we wended our way around Burlington’s downtown, the women told the stories of families learning to get by in their new homeland.

We started our journey at Sugarsnap, inside the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. As we sampled a fresh, herby salad featuring the three sisters of Native American agriculture—squash, beans, and corn—Elise reminded us that our almost Great Lake was once an inland saltwater sea. As the glaciers retreated, the land rose, dumping the saltwater north into the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The Native Americans who lived in the area had to adjust their foodways to the changing landscape, and fast—some scientists hypothesize that this change from saltwater to freshwater took just ten years. When the Europeans arrived, few were prepared for farming and hunting in foreign conditions. The Abenaki, who descended from the original residents, shared their knowledge and, at the same time, took in some of the European traditions, which led to the creation of a new “Yankee” culture.

As we headed out into the drizzle to follow the bike path to Union Station, Gail relayed the story of the Irish who ventured to Burlington. The Irish were the first to arrive in large numbers in the 1850s. Many set up taverns and boarding houses to feed and shelter their fellow countrymen. Elise explained that in the post-Civil War years, the French Canadians flowed down from the northern border in even larger numbers. Some called them the “Chinese of the East,” mirroring the massive Chinese settlements in the West.

With the wind picking up a bit, the next food stop beckoned—Maglianero Café. It wasn’t exactly summery weather, but we nevertheless enjoyed our “ice cream” sandwiches—courtesy of Little Sweets of the award-winning restaurant, Hen of the Woods. The homemade buckwheat  biscuits surrounded a square of tart and tangy lime frozen yogurt, a nod to the Lebanese families who once resided in this neighborhood, including the Fayette and Handy families—surnames that are still common in the city today.

After a short walk onward, we found ourselves shaking off umbrellas and doffing damp raincoats to settle up to the bar at Church & Main. We celebrated the Greek immigrants through fall-apart-in-your-mouth roasted pork loin drizzled with tzatziki sauce and savory orzo salad studded with Kalamata olives. Gail pointed out the “Candy Shop” stained-glass windowpane on the wall—a holdover from the former Greek-run sweets store. So we didn’t get the idea that Church Street in the 1940s and ‘50s offered only moussaka and spanakopita, she clarified that although much Hellenic food could be found at family celebrations, the Greek-run restaurants served good-old American-style meals.

After a quick stop for slices of ciabatta topped with house-made mortadella and fennel marmalade at Pascolo, the Italian branch of the Guild family of restaurants, we meandered up the pedestrian corridor. Proving that everything old becomes hip again, Gail described the first food cart from the turn of the last century. From one of these “owls”—so the carts were nicknamed because they held nighttime hours to serve late-shift workers—Latvian immigrant Samuel Bergman likely sold hard-boiled eggs and sandwiches: a far cry from the pulled-pork soft tacos and organic kettle corn that vendors hawk today on Church Street.

While devouring fresh-from-the-lake fried perch at Hotel Vermont’s Juniper, the group conversed about the stories we heard that day and remarked how communities worked together to help new immigrants, whether by providing free food or by hiring those in need of work. Though the city doesn’t have nearly the population of foreign-born residents that it did in the early twentieth century (14 percent in 1900 versus 4 percent today), people from such far-flung origins as Somalia, Bhutan, Serbia, and Peru now call the Queen City home. Perhaps these newcomers will continue the tradition and create their own mix of new cuisines and culture.

The Burlington Edible History Tour will resume in May 2015 and run through October. For information go to www.burlingtonediblehistory.com