In September I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. A happy prosperous town of red maple leaves, varsity sweatshirts and cafes populated with graduate students chatting about their studies. It is also a town where second generation Portuguese immigrants sprinkle chorizo into Boston clam chowder, local oysters are served for brunch with make-your-own-bloody-Marys and lobster is so abundant this year that the price has fallen to $5 a pound. I am very happily situated, thank you, right on Kirkland Street, equidistant between two farmers’ markets resplendent with Fall New England bounty: honeycrisp apples, pumpkin blossoms, maple syrup, molasses rye bread. And as luck would have it, in this abundant and wholesome foodscape, my nearest grocery store is the venerable and quirky Savenor’s.
There’s a case to be made that Savenor’s is ground zero of the foodie transformation of middle-class America over recent decades. When Julia Child returned to the US from Europe in the early 1960s, she lived just off Kirkland and became a regular. Back then Jack Savenor ran a high-end butcher shop catering to a discerning clientele of the professorial classes who had been warned (an early food alarm, before red meat, eggs and bread were to be demonised) that supermarket beef was full of steroids and antibiotics and responsible for allergies. Instead, they were advised, “game meat” was healthier and from early on Savenor’s sold venison, rabbit and bison.
Julia Child is fondly referred to as just “Julia” among the Cambridge cognoscenti and Savenor’s old-timer customers, who remember her offering cooking tips as they waited at the counter together. “Julia really knew how to butcher,” Ron Savenor, who took over the business when his father died, told me one morning sitting outside in the sunshine with a copy of a butchers catalogue. “She would talk to my father about the difference between French and American cuts.”
Julia’s masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published in 1961. Soon she began her cooking show on Boston Public Television and her high New England voice—exhorting, coaxing and warmly school-marm—persuaded a generation of housewives that they too could produce fancy French dishes. Before Julia, the American home kitchen was filled with boxes of industrialised convenience and pap. After Julia it was a place where housewives took pride in cooking from scratch. From the start, she championed real food and quality and encouraged chefs and viewers to “go on down to Jack Savenor’s” to buy the best meat. By the time she appeared on the cover of Time in 1966, Savenor’s business had expanded exponentially and included a lucrative wholesale arm supplying restaurants. When the store reopened after it burnt down in the 80s, Julia wrote her signature line—“Bon Appetite!”—with a stick in the wet concrete threshold. It’s still there, a memorial welcome.
Through the years Savenor’s has continued to track trends in food and cooking. Wagyu beef, duck fat, fois gras and pork chops from Tamworth pigs now crowd the chiller cabinets along with what Americans call “organ meat”—kidneys, liver and sweetbreads—which they would never have eaten 10 years ago. Locavore and artisinal are the new buzz words, along with gluten-free and paleo-diet. The purplish Aberdeen Angus steaks and free range foraging chickens come from Maine; Savenor’s is a place to find milled estate flour and cultured butter from Vermont; pumpkin seeds roasted by a nice lady called Kathie in Banbury, Connecticut; unfiltered ginger ale and Cape Cod cranberry sauce. And in the freezer, the game meat section has grown into a zoo: ostrich, camel, python, zebra, wild boar, elk, iguana, alligator. “We even get lion, sometimes,” Ron told me, from lions bred to be hunted on giant ranches in Texas. I picked up a packet of skinned rattlesnake and asked him how I should cook it. “Oh I would just par boil it and then do a kind of shake‘n’bake thing,” said Ron.
Julia advises using cubes of stewing beef to make her famous boeuf bourguignon, a cut which could come from any part of the animal. After talking it through with the Savenor’s butcher I chose short ribs. Partly because they are trendy at the moment—“you know they used to be a cheap barbecue cut,” Ron told me ruefully, “but now they’re so popular that they’ve become almost rare because most of America’s… are exported to Japan”—and partly because they will hold up to a long braise. I constructed the dish very carefully over several days. I made beef stock from sawed open beef bones, onion, celery and a single carrot (I have a mild prejudice against carrots in stock: too sweet, too strongly carrotty). I reduced liquidised tomatoes into a tomato paste. I peeled and browned a couple of dozen fiddly pearl onions. I bought good hickory smoked bacon for lardons. I used meaty portobello mushrooms. I deglazed with a little Marsala. I dredged the short ribs in flour and a pinch of paprika and fried them brown. I used a decent bottle of Californian Pinot Noir. I cooked long and slow for the full three hours that Julia advises, and rested the pot in the fridge overnight. It emerged rich glossy chocolate, deep and good. It was perhaps the best thing I’ve ever cooked.
And the rattlesnake? I poached it quickly, dredged it in flour and fried. It was more skeleton than flesh, but with the crispy exterior and a little lemon it tasted like its amphibious cousin, frogs legs—pretty good.