The last weekend of January I got the chance to participate in a program at Old Sturbridge Village called “Dinner in a Country Village”. I had planned to write a historical post about cooking in an 1830s home, but decided instead to write about my experience since I had an amazing time. I threw in a few historical facts…I couldn’t help myself! Enjoy.
As we all trekked out—on the second coldest day of the month—to the Parsonage house, I felt like I should have donned my long skirt and bonnet that my mom made for me a few years back when I played a schoolmarm for our town’s one room schoolhouse. However, the below freezing temperatures made me glad I had modern apparel at my disposal. Once inside, we were time morphed to 1838. No electricity, no central heating, just a few candles casting an eerie glow on the tables and a blessedly warm fire raging in the huge brick fireplace.
With three interpreters as guides, it took fourteen of us, divided into four groups, three hours to prepare a meal…I kept thinking if it’d been just my mom and me…we’d have spent forever in the kitchen…which explains why running a household was pretty much a full time job in the 1830s. The first group worked on preparing our appetizers (mulled cider and pounded cheese). I admit I pigged out on the cheese; it was that good! The second group worked on the vegetable dishes (onion soup, roasted carrots, stewed beets, turnip sauce and hot slaw). If you know me, you know I didn’t go near the veggies. The men eagerly volunteered to handle the meats (roast beef with kitchen pepper and fricasseed chicken) and I, sweet tooth that I have, helped with the pastries, which included making the biscuits, Marlboro pudding and a trifle. Sounds good huh? It was!
First task: Core and peel 5 apples, then grate them. Okay, not too hard right? 19th century apple corers were made of tin and surprisingly effective and easy to use. Paring apples with a dull knife? Let’s just say I passed that job on to my mom. I lack certain skills in the kitchen, and one of them is peeling—apples, carrots, potatoes, it doesn’t really matter what—I’m pretty much hopeless when it comes to using a peeler… Blunt knife aside, I didn’t trust myself to accomplish that job without some blood lost! I did grate. Now, grating isn’t exactly hard…a little dangerous to the fingers once you get to the last of the apple, but I have to say, when I finished I realized just how much I love my food processor! I would love to add an old-fashioned corer and tin grater to my kitchen collection—purely for display purposes! And the fact that I could brag, “I’ve baked with those!” The grater is basically a sheet of tin with holes in it—a nail was used to make tiny punctures up and down the tin sheet and then rolled into a cylinder shape and fastened together. Simple, but effective.
While other members of my group worked on the trifle and biscuits, I moved on to making the pie crust for the Marlborough pudding. I admit this was the second best moment of the night for me. Yes, making pie crust got me totally excited and talking nonstop about it to just about everyone who’d listen for days after. It’s my new, easy and quick way to make great pie crust. All you need are 2 cups flour, 1 stick room temperature butter, and 1/2 cup water. With your hand mix the flour and butter together. Then make a little catch basin area in the flour mixture, and pour half the water into the center. Mix in a circular motion with a couple fingers, then add the rest of water. Mix together, roll out, and voila – great pie crust. It was so simple and worked perfectly.
So, are you wondering what the absolute best moment of the night was for me? Sticking my hand in a brick oven!! Confused? Okay so, the whole time we’d been prepping there was a fire going in the oven, getting it nice and hot! When we were ready to use the oven, we had to scoop out all the burning embers. Once we scooped out as many of the big chunks as we could, we then (using a wet broom) swept out the remaining embers until it was nice and clean. We had to do this very quickly so that we didn’t lose too much heat. Since thermometers weren’t around back then, the way to tell if your oven was hot enough was what I call the “fist method” Our goal was a temperature of about 375. To check the temperature, a woman would stick her fist in the oven and hold it in there for as long as she could take the heat. She’d slowly start counting—one-one hundred, two-one-hundred—until she couldn’t stand to have her fist in the oven any longer. Through years of cooking and learning from their mothers, girls would learn what their “number” was that signified the oven was ready for baking. I’d learned about this on one of my very first visits to OSV and had been dying to try it myself, so when one of the interpreters let me find out what my number was I was on cloud nine! My number by the way is nine seconds. So, for example, if I was testing the oven and could only keep my hand in for six seconds, I would know the oven was still too hot and I’d let it cool a little more. Should I be worried when the highlight of the evening was sticking my hand in a brick oven?
Once the oven was ready, in went the pies and biscuits. Then it was time to set the table—a plate with a two pronged fork on the left, a wide, flat, dull knife on the right and a spoon at the top, finished off with a cloth napkin. After saying grace, thanking God for this wonderful feast before us, we tucked our napkins under our chins—no I’m not joking, that was the proper way in 1838—and started passing the food around. Eating the meal was a bit of a challenge. Looking at the very small two pronged fork, I realized it wasn’t going to be good for much other than stabbing food to keep it in place while being cut. I was right. In the 1800s you ate with your knife! The first couple attempts were…well interesting, but I after a few tries I managed to eat without embarrassing myself—as in knife went up to the face rather than the face meeting my plate! After dinner, we gathered in the parlor, where the last of the fire burnt and flickering candlelight lit the room, for coffee and dessert.
It was a wonderful evening, and if you ever get the chance to participate, I highly recommend it!
Note: Banner at beginning of post, the picture used is courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village (www.osv.org)