Food Roots: A Short History of Food in New Haven
A colonial city shaped by a long history of immigration and an annual influx of thousands of students, New Haven is a kaleidoscope of foods and cultures. The city’s incredible racial and ethnic diversity have shaped not only its people and their interactions, but also the food that has made New Haven a culinary destination, drawing people from around the northeast to dine in the Elm City.
Part of New Haven’s culinary heritage can be traced to its place as a harbor city founded in 1640 and inhabited by wealthy businessmen and farmers. Yale University, founded in 1701, brought into the city a constant circulation of young men, many of whom came from similarly privileged backgrounds. In the mid-nineteenth century, Mory’s was founded in New Haven as an alehouse of unpretentious origins that had become a campus landmark by 1912, when the Mory’s Association was founded. By the early twentieth century, Mory’s had become an esteemed, members-only dining establishment that brought in wealthy students and alumni to wine, dine, and sing. In fact, Yale’s famous a cappella group, the Whiffenpoofs, traces its founding to a group of students that performed weekly at Mory’s. The legacy lives on as the Whiffenpoofs, along with other student a cappella groups, perform regularly at Mory’s, while other patrons congregate to sing raucous drinking songs, passing around engraved metal cups that hark back to Yalies of the past. Mory’s location near the center of Yale campus, its menu of high priced, upscale food, and its business casual dress code serve as reminders of its roots and the wealth and privilege that helped establish it as a Yale tradition.
Though founded somewhat later, Louis’ Lunch is known for pioneering a very different sort of dining experience—the owners claim that their establishment is the place where the hamburger was created. According to legend, Louis served the first burger in 1900, creating an on-the-go sandwich with a broiled meat patty set between two pieces of toasted, sliced white bread. Over one hundred years later, the recipe has gone relatively unchanged: Louis’ is known for its simple but delicious burgers, topped with toasted white bread, tomato, onion, and cheese. The secret to ordering at Louis’ also remains the same: never, even for a moment, should a customer think about asking for ketchup. Operated today by Louis’ great-grandson out of its small spot on Crown Street, Louis’ Lunch’s focus on making great burgers remains as strong as ever. The menu, like the burger itself, is about simplicity and perfection, featuring only the famous burger and potato salad, chips, and drinks.
More recently, food in New Haven has been defined by its strong Italian-American community, centered in Wooster Square. Turn-of-the-century immigration brought thousands of Italians to New Haven, many of whom settled down in this neighborhood just east of downtown New Haven. As immigrants established themselves and began their lives in the city, restaurants, bakeries, and shops opened to bridge the cultural gap, transforming Italian cuisine and tradition into something uniquely Italian-American. By the 1930s, New Haven’s now-famous, thin-crust apizza had formed deep roots, largely thanks to a defining culinary rivalry—Frank Pepe Pizzeria and Sally’s Apizza. Situated only a few hundred yards apart from each other, Pepe and Sally’s have staked out loyal followings, making the question of preference between the two a contentious one to this day. Around the same time apizza took hold, other eateries set up shop in the Wooster area, including Lucibello’s, a traditional Italian bakery. Known for its extravagant wedding cakes, cannolis, sfogliatelle, pignoli, and zeppole, among other pastries, Lucibello’s continues to serve Wooster Square and the greater New Haven area.
Today, New Haven is home to restaurants, trucks, and carts that serve everything from Pad Thai to clam chowder. New establishments appear frequently, changing the environment that landmarks like Mory’s, Louis’ Lunch, Frank Pepe, and Sally’s Apizza helped create. Aided by more recent waves of immigration from countries like Mexico and the Dominican Republic, the city’s culinary palate has become and will continue to morph into something more varied, more nuanced, more diverse—something truly special and unique to New Haven.