Monday, August 30, 2010

Historical Cooking Learning curve

I grew up steeped in history (check out this entry for more on that) especially “daily life” type history so popular at museums and among historians of the 1970s and 1980s.  I was not yet out of college when I got my first museum job (entries about that here and here.) which involved talking about a lot of women’s daily tasks, of which food production and cooking played a major role. So when reading history books or thinking about history I have gravitated toward the study of food as a window into whatever time and place I was studying. However, that does not mean I did a lot of cooking.

I don’t cook a lot in my mundane life either. Usually by the time I think to cook I am too hungry to take the time to make something. I can cook, and I don’t mind doing it, but I lived alone for a number of years, then Stephen and I moved in together and he actually likes to cook, so I let him do most of that while my chore is cleaning up after his kitchen experiments.

So when Stephen started talking about doing a historical encampment and I volunteered to cook, I was embarking on a very new sort of endeavor. I had read a lot, I had attended a lot of museum workshops, I had even assisted at some of those workshops, but my experience level was negligible. I think I fooled everyone except Stephen into thinking I was old hat at all this. I had a couple of historical cooking books, a book on how to cook over a fire, and years of camping experience. Two other members of the guild volunteered to cook as well, and we practiced a few times at rehearsals before we actually had to prepare a meal for the entire group to eat.

The first thing that I attempted to cook was made of historical ingredients, but it was a modern recipe: Alton Brown’s Lamb and Barley Stew. I watched the Good Eats episode about barley several times, and I even made the dish at home on our modern stove before I attempted it over the cookfire at rehearsals. Stephen taught me how to cut up the leg of lamb and suggested an addition of fennel to give it that sweet and spicy flavor so common among medieval recipes. It was a huge hit with the guild. The next things that I cooked were from the book: The Magic of Fire. While the recipes were not necessarily historical, most of them were based on incredibly old styles of cooking. So I string roasted a chicken, ash roasted some onions, and made a couple of fritattas over the course of the run.

Das Geld Fahnlein preparing for the mid-day meal.
I did attempt some traditional medieval recipes as well. We had 9 days of faire during which we had to provide a meal, I did not want to repeat anything more than twice during that time. I used a recipe for buttered cabbage, and one for Apple Moye out of the book Sallets, Humbles and Shrewsbury Cakes and I made a Garlic Walnut sauce for fish out of The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy. These books were great for me because they had modern versions of the recipes as well as the original Medieval texts. The modern version included exact ingredient lists and measurements as well as cooking times. They were written with the idea the recipes would be cooked in a modern kitchen with things like food processors and ovens, so I had to pick recipes that did not call for those things, or alternate the recipes to use renaissance tools and cooking fires. Some recipes were more successful than others, but none of them were complete disasters. And as far as I know no one starved.

In the spring I had another brief chance to cook, we were going to attend Marching Trough Time in Maryland in April and we needed to do some cooking, but since we were only taking two vehicles, we did not want to bring the entire kitchen set-up. I made and froze a number of things to bring with us, so all we would have to do was heat them up over the fire, and not actually do a lot of chopping, butchering and prep-work. I made the lamb stew again, then I made an herb soup out of The Medieval Kitchen book. I also really wanted to make a Pea Pottage. As one of the quintessentially “old timey” foods, pea porridge is one of those foods that just about everyone calls to mind when they picture an old-timey family huddled around a smoky fireplace. I know it is a horrible cliché, and that not everyone ate peas porridge all the time. But it was eaten with a fair degree of frequency, and could easily be cooked up ahead of time and frozen. I looked up the recipe in a couple of my medieval cook books, but there were a lot of conflicting directions. There were too many choices on how it could be cooked, seasoned, and thickened. I got a package of split peas at the grocery store (because whole dried peas are not that easy to find) and thought about just following the recipe on the back of the bag, but I wanted to do better than that. Finally, the day I was going cook up the peas I was checking some of my favorite blogs, and a blog that usually concentrates on 17th and 18th century cooking had for her most recent post a renaissance era recipe, a recipe for Pease Pottage! The author of the blog got the recipe from a book on King Henry the VIII’s  kitchen at Hampton court that she was reading. She wrote out the renaissance version with the old text, then wrote it out in modern English. There were no ingredient amounts or cooking times, but I had the back of the bag to tell me how much water to use and how long it took to cook the peas until tender. The transcription of the original was just what I needed, and it is exactly what I made when I went home. I did cheat a little, since I was preparing it at home, and used an immersion blender to smooth out some of the soup. I will not have that option when I make the whole thing in camp this fall, I’ll have to come up with a renaissance smoothing method, I’ve already got some ideas.

This is Part 2 of a series of entries on Historical Cooking. Read Part 1 here. Part 3 coming soon!

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My Interest in Historical Encampments

Or, why I started Cooking
Being an Incredibly Biased Rendition of the Birth of the Guild of Saint Morritz

I originally wrote this as background to a post about cooking, but that turned into a multi-part post about cooking, and this intro turned into its own entry.

When Stephen decided he wanted to start a historical encampment, I told him I wanted to cook at it. Actually, that is not how all this started. The first summer I met Stephen we were both working Renaissance Faires. In fact, the first time we got to spend any time together was when he invited me to help out with a tiny little faire where his armored combat troupe had been invited to participate. I borrowed a friend’s renfaire garb and went to help “squire” for the knights in armour. The knights were required to perform two shows for the day, which meant there was a lot of hanging out time when they were not bashing each other about with swords. They spent a lot of that time sitting in front of a historical tent, teasing me just to get me to blush.

After that single day at a small event I was determined to hang out with the Armored combat troupe a lot more often, and not because of the teasing. I wanted to squire for the guys, I wanted to sit in front of historical tents, I wanted to bring more history to events that did not have a lot of real history. I convinced Stephen that squires could be a nice addition to their armored combat demonstration, and it turned out there were plenty of women in bodices willing to “squire” even there were not a lot of 6 to 12 year old boys. I convinced them that the tent might be more than a convenient changing room, it could also represent the home of a traveling knight. Two years later I was able to suggest that an encampment be included in the storyline of the Connecticut Renaissance Faire (though with Vikings instead of knights) and the year after that the knights took the encampment over. We still just had the single tent, now a sad rag of its former self, but we had a canvas fly set up in front to keep the rain off, a table and some historical chairs, and a copper fire dish where we warmed apple cider.  Pretty good for an endeavor that was really just a side project. Lest you think I was doing the entire thing on my own, I certainly was not. The other folks involved in the armored combat troupe thought an encampment was a pretty good idea and spent much more time on the faire days making the camp a lively and engaging place. By the end of the run that fall we were ambitious enough to try cooking a stew over our little fire, we all brought ingredients to the final Saturday, but before everyone arrived on site a dam broke upstream of the faire. It washed good portions of the faire away. We did not open that final weekend.

Things changed after that, the faire moved, our energies were directed elsewhere, some folks joined us, some folks left. Though we tried to make up a knight’s encampment over the next few years, it was never as successful at the one we did in 2005. But Stephen and I kept doing more historical endeavors, finding other ways to bring history to life, and when working with the cast of CTRF was no longer the focus for either of us, we got to think about starting a new history adventure. THAT was when Stephen said he wanted to start a historical encampment and I said I wanted to cook.

This is the intro to a series of posts about cooking. Part 2 is here, and part three is coming soon!

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Sunday, August 1, 2010


Many years ago I was lucky enough to work as a costumed interpreter at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. My first role was that of the Widow Wheelwright. At first I would sit in the dim kitchen sewing on a piece of cloth and thinking about how miserable Martha Wheelwright must have been, but as the summer grew warmer I was given permission to move my chair out to the yard where the light for my sewing was better, and where I could see more of what was going on in the busy museum around me. The Wheelwright yard was not much --a patch of grass, a few flowers around the door and some fruit trees taking up most of the space—but I loved it especially on sunny days. Not too long after I started I was given a wooden wash tub and told I could interpret laundry day. I could not have any fire, and I could only have water and soap out in the yard so I would not damage any of the period furniture inside, but it was something else to do, and very nice on a hot day to splash about and strew laundry all over the fruit trees. At one point a small pile of firewood showed up in the yard, I don’t remember who put it there or why (since I definitely was not allowed to burn it) but I had fun stacking it, and telling visitors how I had no income but a neighbor was nice enough to give me some wood for use in cooking and laundry etc.

I spent a year as a costumed interpreter then went back to school, but I returned the next summer to work in the gardens at SBM. I did not get to do much in the Wheelwright yard, it was a pretty sparse yard, but I got to work in a number of different yards and gardens all over the museum:  the 17th century raised beds, the 1940s victory garden, the Victorian flowerbeds and glass house, the early 20th century immigrant yard (complete with vegetable patch and clothesline!) At the same time I was taking classes at schools and museums all over the Pioneer Valley about museum work and public history. In a small amount of time I managed to take three classes on Material Culture, I became good at studying people by studying the stuff they’d left behind. I looked at baroque chairs, early colonial houses, grave markers, tools for harvesting a cranberry bog, and more.

I finally managed to put it all together in a series of papers on the place of the yard in Colonial American life. I was (and still am) convinced that before the age of central heating/AC and electric lighting, people spent much more time doing the sorts of chores we now consider to be indoor chores in an outdoor location. Why in the world would someone sit inside to sew when it was so much brighter outside? Why would one do the messy jobs like laundry and butchery indoors when the cleanup is so much easier outside? I looked at archaeological evidence of paved yards, outbuildings and trash heaps, I studied art history for drawings and paintings of yards in active use, I looked at laws governing fences in 18th Century New England, and much more. I think of all the academic papers I’ve written I am still most proud of those works on the material culture of the Yard.

Just a few mornings ago, when looking at the artwork of the day that is delivered to me electronically by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was struck by this 17th century drawing:

At first I was thrilled because it was only a century off from the lives we are portraying over at Das Geld Fahnlein but upon looking at the drawing, it actually was not much use for us. The details are indistinct, and we’re not portraying peasants doing harvesting sorts of tasks. But I took the time to go look for other drawing from the same series and took a good look at the October drawing:

and looking at that one I realized what had struck me about the first image. They are both yard scenes! Scenes of people working at their daily tasks in an out of doors (but not far from buildings) setting. Looking at the yard scenes made me feel all warm and happy.

A historical movie can have varying levels of historicity but to me if it contains a yard scene, it will have a space in my heart. Ever After has an early scene showing laundry being spread out on the hedges to dry, and the recent Pride and Prejudce movie has some delightful scenes set in the yard, including a montage showing the passage of the seasons reflected in the different sorts of farm work going on in the yard. Pure magic in my opinion!

Some people like to re-create the great battles of the past, some folks focus on clothing, or skills, or on the buildings of the past. If I could re-create anything from the past with no restrictions, I think I would have to make myself a yard. A simple, working yard, paved with cobblestones or hard packed dirt. With chickens and a plot for vegetables and herbs. A nice sturdy fence and some fruit trees. Buildings for the animals, harvest storage, maybe a workshop. And plenty of space to bring out chairs and baskets of sewing so I could sit in the sun and enjoy my yard. Read this entry on entry page