Sunday, December 30, 2012

When Did Winter Get So Busy?

Happy 2013!

A couple of years ago Stephen and I jumped at the chance to attend the Sudbury Militia’s 12th Night Ball because it gave us a chance to dress up and have fun during a very quiet time of year. We’re planning on attending this year but instead of being the only event, it is just the beginning of a very busy winter.

After the 12th Night Ball, there is one weekend with nothing historic scheduled (yet), then our local SCA hosts a big winter market called Birka which is an old home day for us, and only a half an hour away.

The weekend after Birka we’ll be quite a bit further afield when we attend Military History Fest out in Chicago. We spend three days in tons of different timeperiods catching up with old friends, making new friends, and teaching and learning.

The weekend after MHF there is a Pride and Prejudice Ball put on by the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers on Saturday, and a workshop by The Hive on Sunday. Two weeks later there is a New England Reenactor’s Trade Fair where Das Geld Fahnlein will have a recruiting table.

All that before March! Read this entry on entry page

Sunday, December 23, 2012

You Have To Believe

I listen to NPR a lot, and recently on the way in to work (my temp work while the museum is closed) I heard a story  about a man who plays Santa Claus at this time of year. He said the most important thing, for him is he must believe that he is Santa. Even in the face of teenagers and beard pullers he must believe, once he puts on the suit, that he is Santa.

How true!

As someone who spends quite a bit of her time as someone else, often in the face of teenagers and (even worse) retired age men, I must believe that when I am dressed as Mrs. Shapiro and enter museum grounds, I am Mrs. Shapiro. I am in my kitchen preparing meals for my family. When in camp and I get dressed as Hanne Reischach, I am Hanne. On the march in foreign lands with my husband. If I don't believe it, who else will?

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Tea Brack

One of the exciting things about this past year at Strawbery Banke is that I have been able to explore a lot more food history. I had spent the last couple years teaching myself about medieval foodways, but it was awesome to look, first at colonial food, then Jewish cooking, and finally getting the chance to dip my toes into traditional Irish fare.

For Candlelight Stroll I am in the kitchen of the Victorian mansion, portraying an Irish servant, so when asked if I wanted to do some cooking, I jumped at the chance. The dichotomy of a girl coming from a culture of starvation (1850s Ireland) to become the cook in a house where almost any food is available in almost any season is extremely fascinating. Some of my bosses talked about the decadence of Victorian cooking, others about the long traditions of Ireland. At first I was at a bit of a loss, I had a short time to read up on two different food cultures, and I did not have a lot of museum support since the regular season was over. Still, I knew some basics: pies and puddings are good Victorian celebratory fare, tea and soda bread are good Irish traditions.

I called on my own Irish connection and my aunt Kathleen came through. She mailed me a copy of A taste of Ireland in Food and Pictures by Theodora Fitzgibbon. What a great book! Kathleen had marked her favorite recipes and I picked out one that looked good, a fruit-cake-like dessert that seemed festive enough, called Tea Brack.

The recipe book, surrounded by at least some of the ingredients
The gist of Tea Brack is you take a bunch of dried fruit and soak them in tea and whiskey overnight, then bake them into a cake.  I bought some golden raisins, used the dates and apricots I already had in the house, with some currants from Das Geld Fahnlien’s supplies (those supplies are living at our house this winter.) I made up a pot of Earl Grey and asked Stephen for a cup of whiskey. An entire cup. I probably should have halved the recipe, but by the time I figured that out it was much too late. Stephen is a bit of a whiskey snob so he has plenty of whiskey in the house, but it is all pretty expensive stuff. He sighed mightily as he poured me a little from this bottle and a little from that to make up a full cup. The house smelled lovely overnight, as the sugar and liquids were absorbed by the fruits. When I added in the dry ingredients it was an incredibly wet cake, but I poured it into two loaf pans and a round cake pan. It was supposed to cook at 300 for one and a half hours, but I started it a bit late, and needed to take it to the museum. So I started it at 300, then 20 minutes in Stephen turned it up to 320, and 10 minutes later I turned it up for 340. At exactly an hour we pulled all the cakes out of the oven, they were done.

The tea rack sits among the other goodies and looks splendid
Photo by Jess Boynton
The round one came with us to the museum, and it looked great on a plate among our tea things. We tell all the folks that come to visit us about the recipe from home, just like mother used to make, with tea and whiskey (that’s how you know it is Irish.) It tastes lovely too, the whiskey flavor has toned down a bit since that first night, now it is just nice and fruity with a smoky tone to it. I’d make it again, but definitely halve the recipe, and possibly make it a little more cakey.

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Becoming Lizzie, Again

At Strawbery Banke Museum folks look forward, or at least plan for, the Christmas program all year long. Called Candlelight Stroll, the grounds are illuminated, there is hot cider, a bonfire, caroling, Saint Nick, and all of the historic houses are full of roleplayers. This means that people who have been roleplayers in the past come back for the three weekends of stroll, folks who are not normally roleplayers get into costume, and they even hire some outside folks, usually musical outsiders.

By August of this past season the other interpreters were asking me where I would be at Candlelight Stroll. They asked me if I’d be the third sister making Latkes in Shapiro kitchen. I love Shapiro, but two Mrs. Shapiros are probably enough. So I went to my boss (the one in charge of education) and asked if there was a different role for me, or if they had any holes they’d like to fill. She asked if I was musical, and had any reenacting friends who were musical… they had spent the last few years looking for a group to provide a drunken Irish servant party in the kitchen of the Victorian mansion.  I jumped at the chance for three reasons: not Shaprio, I would get to hire a few of my friends, and I would get to reprise the role of Lizzie Sullivan.

The last Candlelight Stroll that I worked at Strawbery Banke was the Stroll of 1999, and at that time I got to play Lizzie Sullivan, the 21 year old Irish maid employed by the Goodwin family. I was alone in the kitchen and behind the barrier but I was not allowed to touch anything, so I mostly chatted about all the pies I had made to help my older sister Sophie, the cook (who was downstairs in the cellar gathering root vegetables and stored items.) I had been portraying Lizzie once a week for most of the summer, using the Irish accent taught to me by my mom’s best friend (I have her first name as my middle name), who is bona fide Boston Irish. I wore a costume that was made for someone much bigger than myself (I told people it was my sister’s spare dress, the Goodwin children had just ruined mine.)

My love of Irish history goes back to my first Living History experience, in eighth grade, where the computer teacher and the English teacher taught us about the Irish potato famine so we all could write a journal from the perspective of a real immigrant who made the journey to Boston in the nineteenth century. So when, the first time I worked at The Banke, I was asked to play a Nineteenth Century  Irish Servant I was thrilled to do so. When I went back to college after working at The Banke I did a whole Independent Study and wrote up my Lizzie Sullivan script, with a lot more bibliography thrown in.

Lizzie Sullivan & George Rose,
photo by Jess Boynton, taken in our den.
This past summer, not long after enquiring about this year’s available roles, the Event Coordinator approached me and asked if I really could provide a drunken (acted) party with music for the Goodwin kitchen. I assured her I could, and would start to gather a musical servant posse right away. The first person I approached was Stephen. He is a better roleplayer than I am, plus he plays the Irish drum and we know a lot of the same Irish songs. I searched around for another instrumentalist (I only sing) and ended up with our good friend Kristina of Silver Thistle who, besides being an excellent historical costumer, is also a historical roleplayer and knows a lot of the same songs from years of acting at Renaissance faires. She also lives not too far from Strawbery Banke. Kristina made up a lovely dress, Stephen dug out his mid-nineteenth century clothing from our dabbling in the Wild West, and I borrowed a Strawbery Banke costume. In fact, I was given the same skirt that I wore 12 years ago. It fits me much better now. We rehearsed some drinking songs and some Irish songs, Kathleen (mom’s best friend) sent me a lovely cookbook of old Irish recipes, and we have had a lovely party in the kitchen for the last two weekends.

Lizzie and Sophie Sullivan in Goodwin Kitchen
There are no more barriers in the Goodwin kitchen, and we were told we could eat and drink (as long as it was not too messy.) I provided some food, the event staff provided some, the education staff provided others. It can get cold since the door is so often open, but we have hot water for tea, and a lot of layers of clothes. Goodwin house always has a large number of Junior Roleplayers for Stroll (I'll have to do a separate post of Juniors.) The Juniors, playing some of the grandchildren, string popcorn for our little Charlie-Brown-type tree, and make animals and fruit out of marzipan. We don't sing all the time, since usually there are so many people in the house we are all carrying on different conversations with different visitors. We always get to sing every sing once, and our favorites twice. Even the juniors join in on the songs they already know, or get to know the more time they spend with us. We tell jokes and tongue twisters, and tease each other all evening long while we spread Christmas cheer and maybe a little education too.

We’ll be there for one more weekend, I can’t wait, but I’ll be so sad when it is over. I have a lot more to share with you, hopefully I’ll be getting up a few more posts soon, including some cooking adventures, and future plans.

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Monday, December 3, 2012

My Season at The Banke

Last Spring when I found the notice about openings in the interpretation staff at Strawbery Banke I was at a particularly low point. Temping after the loss of a very good job, feeling like I was not advancing in my field, knowing that I was a drain on my family’s pocketbooks, and not feeling qualified for any job that I might actually want. I saw the SBM notice on their Facebook page. Apparently the usual methods of advertising the position usually yielded a lot of folks that had no idea what they were getting themselves into, but putting the notice up to those who had already “liked” the museum on FB meant that they only heard from people who were really interested in the job of Interpreter at Strawbery Banke.

I was in a place not dis-similar from the last time I had applied for that same job, back in 1998. At the time I was half-way through college, feeling rather lost and depressed, not really sure where I was going. Back then, working at the Banke showed me that one could be a professional in the field of Living History, or at least history, and set me on the way to where I am now. This time my loving family all agreed, maybe it was time to go back and get re-energized, see if the field had changed, and if the Banke had anything else to teach me. I’m so glad I went for it.

There are four variations to the “front line” staff job at Strawbery Banke. There are the Interpreters, who wear modern clothes and speak about the history of the different houses from a modern perspective. There are the Museum Teachers, who teach special workshops to school groups, scout groups, special tours, and those who request specific learning experiences. The demonstration folks have specific skills like weaving or hearth cooking that they practice and teach. Then there are the Costumed Role-Players, who portray specific people from a specific time in the neighborhood’s history. The initial job posting was for interpreters, but during my interview I managed to convince the poor fella interviewing me that I could do all of the above, I hope over the course of the season I proved my worth.

I jumped right in last May, learning workshops, hearth cooking, regular interpreting, and the role of Mrs. Shapiro. By mid-summer I was capable of working in just about any house on the property plus doing research for new program proposals. By fall I had multiple roles, new programs, and had made a whole lot of new friends.

Most importantly, I got to spend the summer doing something that I love. I don’t know why teaching history by doing is my passion. I mean, I know why I think it is a worth while endeavor, and I think I know why I am good at it. But why do I give almost all of my energy over to this when it will probably never earn me a living wage, be enough to support a family, leave me with even the hope of a retirement even if I put it off until I am 80?

I just love it.

And this past year has made me so happy. There has not been a single day where I did not want to go in to work. Okay, maybe I spent some time wishing it was not quite so early, that there were more days in the week, and definitely that my commute was not nearly so long; but any time folks asked me how work was going, I could genuinely say that my work was awesome.

I have two wishes this holiday season. One of them is a secret, the other is a hope that I get to spend more time doing what I love.

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