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When in Rome†...
A guide to some of Bostonís inimitable institutions

Welcome to Boston! The Athens of America. The Hub of the Universe. The Home of the Bean and the Cod. Now that youíve arrived, youíll of course want to blend in and be Just Like Us. After all, as Tip OíNeill, the beloved bulbous-nosed US Speaker of the House, once astutely observed, "all politics is local." Since politics is the ostensible reason youíre here, why not act like a local by filling your free time with activities that are quintessentially Boston? Granted, a few of the following are things a proper Bostonian would never do unless the second cousins from Dubuque were in town. But thatís beside the point. Herewith, a guide to some of the cityís most endemic and inimitable institutions.

Sixteen years ago, it was a huge headache for another Democratic Boston pol seeking the highest office in the land. The muddy murk of Boston Harbor, which once rippled with the proud tea leaves of revolution, sloshed instead with sewage and bobbed with flotsam ó from rubber tires to, well, rubbers. That made it easy for George H.W. Bush to attack then-governor Mike Dukakisís environmental bona fides. "The Harbor of Shame," he called it. These days, Boston Harbor is something John Kerry can actually be proud of. (And, conveniently, George W. Bush doesnít have any environmental bona fides!) The past decade-plus has witnessed a breathtaking turnaround in the harbor, and now the azure waters are rife with fish, crustaceans, aquatic plant life, and even seals. Itís a point of pride befitting a world-class city like Boston. See for yourself with a cruise or a whale watch on Massachusetts Bay Lines. The company offers several sightseeing tours, including the USS Constitution Cruise, a narrated trip through history that swings by the Charlestown Navy Yard (home of Old Ironsides, built in 1797), 21-plus jaunts with live bands aboard, and sunset and moonlight cruises. The whale watches are four- and five-hour tours that head to some of the best hangouts for humpbacks, finbacks, and minkes. A sighting is, of course, guaranteed.

If youíre havenít gotten enough of the life aquatic upon reaching land, consider a stop at the world-renowned New England Aquarium, just a sea urchinís throw down Atlantic Avenue. There you can watch the penguins play-act Truman Capoteís black-and-white ball, ponder the enormity of a right-whale skeleton, be entertained by the comic stylings of California sea lions, or watch a movie on a gargantuan (65 feet high by 85 feet wide) 3-D IMAX screen. Without question, however, the centerpiece of the aquarium is its Giant Ocean Tank, a 200,000-gallon microcosm teeming with turtles, tropical fish of all shapes and sizes, and, three times a day, aquarium employees decked out in wetsuits and scuba tanks.

All that fish-watching, of course, makes one hungry for seafood. Now, the tail end of July isnít typically conducive to a steaming bowl of New England clam chowder. But, this being Massachusetts, the weather might just as easily be foggy with a mid-50s chill. If so, get yourself a bowl. There are three varieties of chowder. Of course, thereís the tomato-based Manhattan version (which we wonít dignify with further comment except to say that the Republicans can scarf down all they want in New York City next month). And we have no beef with the harder-to-find Rhode Island version (made with clear clam broth). But the New England version ó piping hot and rich with cream, with potatoes, onions, and plump, pink clams jutting through its black-peppered surface ó is the way to go. Get some at Legal Sea Foods, the legendary Boston restaurant (and now mini-empire). Thereís one on the waterfront, right across from the aquarium. Bonus fact: the word chowder (pronounced: chowdah) comes from the French chaudière, or "stew pot."

A delectable comestible more suited to the dog-day heat is the fried clam. If youíre willing to take a quick trip outside city limits, weíve got just the place for you. Woodmanís of Essex, on Bostonís North Shore, is, simply put, the home of the fried clam. The little red-roofed shack was opened by Chubby and Bessie Woodman in 1914 and has stayed in the family ever since. It was here, in 1916, that the idea first was hatched to roll stretchy clams, food-filled bellies and all, in a milk-and-cornmeal batter, and fry them to golden-brown perfection in a strict 350-degree rolling boil. Little has changed since. Steaming hot and dipped deeply in tartar sauce, with onion rings on the side, itís as good as summer gets.

Woodmanís is hardly the only august bastion of Yankee culinary glory. For prototypical New England dining of a different stripe, head to Durgin-Park, right in Faneuil Hall Marketplace. "Your grandfather & perhaps your great-grandfather dined with us too!" goes the placeís rather wordy motto. While that may not be the case for the outta-townah, itís indubitably so for generations of Bostonians who flocked to the place since "before you were born" (1827, actually) for its comfort food, no-frills atmosphere, and playfully bossy íní brassy waitresses who could easily be your grandmother. Their trays come laden with heaping plates of food thatís increasingly hard to find anywhere but tradition-proud burgs like Boston: Yankee pot roast, fresh Boston scrod, New England boiled dinner, chicken livers with bacon. For dessert, donít miss the Indian pudding and the apple pandowdy.

But when it comes to antediluvian eateries, Ye Olde Union Oyster House has it all over any place in Boston ó and, in fact, any place in the United States. Established in 1826, itís the oldest American restaurant in continuous service, housed in a building thatís been standing since the mid 1700s. Sit downstairs at its ageless semicircular bar, gulping down oysters in the raw or Cape Cod cherrystones with a cold pale ale to match. Or sit upstairs in the Kennedy Booth, where JFK himself used to dine regularly, tucking into treasures from the sea like baked stuffed fillet of sole or seafood Newburg.

Two items youíll be able to find on the menu at both Durgin-Park and Union Oyster House: Boston baked beans and Boston cream pie. The latter is not a pie, of course, but a two-layer cake filled with cream or custard, then topped with a chocolate glaze. Supposedly so named simply because the cake was baked in a pie tin, the sweet is thought to have first appeared in the mid-19th century at the Parker House Hotel. It was the Native Americans who first taught the newly arrived Puritans how to cook beans, simmering with maple syrup and generous chunks of bear fat, in clay pots. (Over time, molasses and pork fat replaced the bear lard.) Of course, Boston has long been known as "Beantown." The navy bean is the official vegetable of Massachusetts, and about a decade ago, the state legislature actually declared it the proper bean for the dish. (Boston cream pie is also, unsurprisingly, the official state dessert.) These days, however, itís hard to imagine that Bostonians eat significantly more or less of either dish than do folks in other parts of the country.

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Issue Date: July 23 - 29, 2004
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