After I managed to trudge through all 26.2 miles of the Boston Marathon at the pace of a tortoise having a rough day, I gratefully received a bottle of water almost as soon as I crossed the finish line. Wrapped in a warming blanket, I then picked up a PowerBar, a Gatorade protein drink, and other foods engineered for optimum recovery – quite a change from the days when volunteers ladled out beef stew.
I’m not sure when the beef stew custom began, but it continued until 1980, when doctors suggested that healthier yogurt and PowerBars should replace the stew, reports Michael Connelly in his entertaining book of marathon lore, 26 Miles to Boston. Then race director Will Cloney responded, “We’ve been serving runners beef stew for more than five decades, and it hasn’t killed anyone yet!”
Generations of athletes appreciated the tradition, though some needed a bit more recovery time before being able to take in such a hearty dose of protein. Bennett Beach, who first ran the Boston Marathon as a Harvard University student and just completed his 47th consecutive race, wrote that he was looking forward to the “tasty beef stew” in an article published in the Harvard Crimson in 1969. “I went to get my food after dressing, but I just could not eat the stew. My stomach said no. I had about four glasses of milk, though. My mother would have been proud.”
An early beef stew recipe for 2000 runners served at the Prudential Center in Boston called for 750 pounds of beef, along with wheelbarrow-worthy quantities of potatoes, onions, carrots, peas. The one I made this week is adapted from a venerable New England source, Yankee magazine’s Main Dish Church Supper Cookbook, published in 1980. It took me a few days be able to comfortably push a grocery cart, but then I happily upheld the race tradition. Recovery is underway!
New England Beef Stew (circa 1980)
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound stew beef, cut into 1 inch cubes
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup prepared tomato sauce
1 1/2 cups boiling water
2 sprigs parsley
2 sprigs rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic
2 creamer potatoes, cut into approximately 1 inch pieces
1/4 cup 1-inch celery slices
4 ounces frozen peas
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon sugar
2 small onions, cut in half
2 carrots, cut into 1-inch slices
- Place the flour and salt in a paper bag. Add the beef and shake the bag until the beef is coated. (You can instead put the flour in a shallow bowl and toss the beef in it, but using the bag is a lot more fun.)
- Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven. Add the beef and brown on all sides.
- Add the tomato sauce and boiling water, scraping the bottom of the pan with a spoon to stir up the browned bits. Simmer, covered, over low heat until the meat is tender, about 2 hours.
- Add the parsley, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, garlic, potatoes, and celery. Cover and return to a simmer.
- Melt the butter with sugar in a skillet. Add the onions and carrots. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until well glazed. Add to the meat mixture.
- Add the peas and cook until the vegetables are tender. Check every 30 minutes, though it may take an hour or longer. Refrigerate overnight and reheat before serving.x