Fundraising feast brings community to the table

Cover image of "One Big Table" by Molly O'Neill

In a world that often seems fragmented and polarized, food-making it and eating it-is one of those great equalizers that has a way of connecting people of all ages and backgrounds.

In honor of the rich food traditions and history of New London, the Custom House Maritime Museum (CHMM) has partnered with Molly O'Neill, founder of One Big Table Across America-an ongoing effort to gather and preserve American recipes and food stories and support local agriculture-to tell the story of maritime New London with a fundraising dinner: One Big Table - New London.

The event on Nov. 11 will feature dishes derived from the family archives of New London's earliest French and Yankee Maritime settlers, gleaned from the melting pot of cultures that have worked on the water-Portuguese, Italian, Irish, Dominican, African-and obtained from local home kitchens.

A New York Times food columnist for over a decade, O'Neill is author of four cookbooks and winner of multiple James Beard awards. She spent the last 10 years traveling the country, gathering hundreds of recipes and food stories from American cooks for her book, "One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking," published last year.

O'Neill teamed up with CHMM's director Susan Tamulevich, who has collected a trove of recipes from the community, and caterer Elisa Giommi of New London's Mangetout organic café to create a feast reflecting the diversity of the city.

Scholar and brick oven baker Charles Van Over of Chester will interpret breads from a variety of ethnic groups, and Saltwater Farm in Stonington will match wines to the menu, which will be served as small and large plates.

At the dinner O'Neill will give a talk, "Food Stories and Fish Stories in Maritime New England."

"We try to research a particular area in more depth and work with cooks and caterers using recipes that tell the story and history and current events of that place," O'Neill explains, "so that people attending are immersed in their local history and seeing their own everyday lives celebrated."

Historically, New London ties in well to this concept, O'Neill notes.

"The most true thing about an Early American cuisine repertoire is maritime. The wild fisheries were the most plentiful source of wild food," she says.

"Our hope it to make the recipes [come] alive," O'Neill adds. "We have an extraordinarily vibrant and curious national palate that allows other cultures in. Almost every culture has its emblematic dish-almost a goodwill ambassador, a bridge into our culture today and the arriving culture."

Tamulevich points out that the event is a chance to showcase immigration to New London through recipes reflecting many ethnicities.

"We're a custom house and don't get to feature what we do," she says. "The oldest continuously operating customs office in the country is in this building, which opened in 1835."

Recipes that the museum gathered, many of which will be adapted for the dinner, include those with direct ties to exhibits at the museum, such as two Italian recipes-Frittura di Mare (fried squid) and Fortaia Co Le Moluke (soft shell crab frittata). Both were submitted by Elvira (Vera) Montesi Carbone, granddaughter of Pasquale Montesi, who made the ship models on display at the museum.

Irida (Edie) Santacroce offered another Italian seafood recipe, for flounder pinwheels.

"She's 87 and her family was from Faro, Italy," Tamulevich says. "Her father had a fish market in New London for decades. She cooks for her nephew, who owns Tony D's (restaurant)."

Ellie Corey, who works at the Dutch Tavern, is of Lebanese descent and shared the recipe and story behind the Lebanese delicacy, stuffed grape leaves, which in her family were called wada, short for wada-ah-ashe, which means "gastronomic ecstasy."

"It's always the part of the Lebanese feast that gets eaten first," Corey says. "Therefore, the rolled pieces of heaven have to be counted and allocated per plate."

Charlotte Hennegan, owner of the Thames River Greenery, offered up her recipe for creamy bouillabaisse that originated in her local Irish Navy family.

Morgan McGinley produced his mother Evelyn Essex McGinley's old recipes going back to the whaling days of New London from her (typed) cookbook, including Mrs. Dudley Brand's Brown Bread and Belle Bosworth's Buttercup Cake.

Nadesha Mijoba, president of New London's Mijoba Communications and Provenance Center, contributed a recipe for her native Venezuelan arepas-corn cakes, which can be stuffed with various fillings and eaten "anytime, everywhere, and with anything you want," she says, and was one of the things she most missed when she came to the U.S.

"My mother would bake them, fry them, or grill them. In my home you will always find Harina P.A.N., the most widely used masa harina (corn meal) in Venezuela," which Mijoba is happy to say is now available at several local supermarkets.

Sweet treats include Plum Duff, a whaler's favorite, similar to plum pudding from Craig Showalter, son of museum founder Lucille Showalter; a classic brownies recipe from Leah Spitz of New London from a Jewish cookbook published in 1969 by Sisterhood Congregation Beth El; and Sweet Potato Pie in the African-American tradition from Phyllis Wiggins.

"One of the most lovely things about getting these recipes is how people open up and talk about the food and what it means to them," Tamulevich says.

"It's fabulous," O'Neill says, to be doing the One Big Table Across America event with the Maritime Museum.

"Small museums like this turn children into life-long learners and make our world a better place by sharing a respect for what went before us and what will come after us. This is a magnificent effort."

Lou Souza visits the Custom House Maritime Museum’s whaling exhibition. Souza, whose father was a fisherman who came to the U.S. from the Azores in the 1880s, contributed a recipe for sweet bread to New London’s “One Big Table” event.
Lou Souza visits the Custom House Maritime Museum’s whaling exhibition. Souza, whose father was a fisherman who came to the U.S. from the Azores in the 1880s, contributed a recipe for sweet bread to New London’s “One Big Table” event.
Molly O’Neill, author of “One Big Table.”
Molly O’Neill, author of “One Big Table.”

If you go

One Big Table-New London will be held Friday, Nov. 11, at 6 p.m. at the Custom House Maritime Museum, 150 Bank St., New London.
Tickets are a $75 donation. $100 donation includes O'Neill's book, "One Big Table" (a $50 value), which she will autograph that evening and are being donated by the Enders Fund.
For reservations, call 860-447-2501. Ticket sales are limited to 45.

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