CAMDEN — The New England Boiled Dinner has become something of a cultural phenomenon, and residents and retailers in the area started preparing for the annual tradition well in advance of St. Patrick’s Day (March 17).

At Megunticook Market and French & Brawn, they started brining the brisket around the last day of February.

Bob McGowan at French & Brawn said they have ordered 100 pounds of meat. Staff there say the demand around St. Patrick’s Day is comparable to the Christmas rush.

New England Boiled Dinner generally combines corned beef with root vegetables simmered together long enough combine the flavors. Recipes include cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes, turnip/rutabagas, and there is some debate on the question of beets.

McGowan said it really started as a poor man’s meal. Here in March, hopefully near the end of winter, these ingredients are the hearty ones that tended to survive in the cellar larder.

Now it has become tradition, well-loved, and for local stores and restaurants, profitable.

McGowan notes that French & Brawn offers brisket they brine themselves with their own recipe, which differs from the pre-packaged corned beef many of us are used to. The pre-packaged stuff is less expensive, but also made using more chemicals.

Megunticook Market also has its own special recipe for the beef. Both places will either sell you the meat to cook yourself, or the prepared meal.

Online sources note that this meal dates back to at least the 18th century. It has sometimes included brisket, pork and/or smoked ham, but here in New England, we generally use salted beef brisket.

It is popular mostly when there is a chill in the air, according to staff at Megunticook Market – selling well in late fall, around the holidays and at St. Patrick’s Day.

Food historian, columnist and author Sandy Oliver of Islesboro said this is a comfort food that has seen a flip in terms of season. In the past, the salted fatty meats such as brisket would be eaten in summer since they were preserved in barrels. Fresh meat would not keep in the warmer months. Fresh meat would keep well in the winter when it could hang in a shed and possibly even freeze.

It was more common for the poor or working-class folks to have the salted fatty portions.

Now boiled dinner is enjoyed in winter by all members of the community. The connection to St. Patrick’s Day, Oliver said, could be due to the poverty of the Irish immigrants.

She agreed with McGowan that the vegetables that keep in the cellar would be brought out in the spring for a meal like this. She added that these root vegetables are the ones that need less tending and care than fussier garden items such as green beans and tomatoes. Only gentleman farmers had time for that kind of gardening, while the peasant class had numerous things to do about the farm and little help to do them with.

Cabbage was also seen as a distinctly lower class food, Oliver said. In the past, the wealthy believed that the working class had a more robust digestive system that could handle just about anything including the gassy cabbage, and imagined that the rich had more delicate systems.

A dandy might make a joke about a poor person planting cabbages by the door where everyone could see them, Oliver said. How gauche!

Despite all of this, in New England even the gentry ate boiled dinner, she said.

While boiled dinner persists, the tradition of salt fish dinner has gone by the wayside. Fishermen in the area were known as recently as the 1950s to salt fish and leave them out in the sun to dry. Salted cod or hake might be stewed up with potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables as often as once a week, Oliver said. It might be seasoned with pork bits to give it more calories.

Getting back to traditional New England Boiled Dinner, the exact best recipe and method and combination of ingredients can be cause for debate, argument and even accusations of apostacy.

“Boiled dinner is a misnomer,” The Camden Herald reported Thursday, July 5, 1951 (why they were talking about it in summer we don’t know). “The corned beef should never be allowed to boil. Boiling results in a dry, stringy piece of meat. According to the recommended method, the meat is placed in… with water to cover and allowed to simmer until nearly tender. This takes about 3 hours for a 3-to-4-pound cut of corned beef. When the meat is nearly tender, add whole carrots and onions. Then about 10 minutes before the end of cooking add cabbage wedges. Some folks are of the theory that a New England ‘boiled’ dinner must contain beets. So, if desired, serve buttered cooked beets with the corned beef dish.”

“Although a brisket of corned beef is usually the base for this kind of boiled dinner, smoked shoulder of pork, corned venison, and a firm rump roast rubbed with coarse salt and ‘kitchen brined’ are choices of other Maine families,” columnist A. Carmen Clark wrote in the Herald in 1985. “Some family traditions state that the salted meat must be served with six vegetables — potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, turnips, and cabbage. Beets are usually cooked separately but are necessary for a real red flannel hash browned crisp on the bottom but steamy moist within.”

Remember that term: “Red flannel hash.” It will be on the test.

Some people cook their dinner in kettles on the stove, some in slow cookers and some in pressure cookers. The general consensus is that the meat needs up to four hours in the water before adding the vegetables, or they will become too mushy. When ready for the veggies, put the root items on the bottom and put the cabbage wedges in around the meat on the sides. (You can also pull the meat out for a time depending on the method you are using and cook the vegetables in the water before putting it back in). Once the veggies are added, it may need another hour or two from there. Many times, the meat will come with a spice packet. Spices may include peppercorns, salt, cloves, bay leaf, mustard seed and dill, among others.

“…Any left-overs went into the wooden chopping bowl and ended up as hash — red-flannel hash if the family had beets among their root crops.”

The fried hash from the following day was always the author’s favorite part of the process, but no one makes it like the author’s mother.

Good luck and happy St. Paddy’s Day!