Holiday Nights and Cooking Days at Greenfield Village

As an elementary school bookworm who wore glasses starting in 5th grade, I loved Little Women, The Little Princess, and especially Laura Ingalls Wilder - all those romanticized visions of the past where a good time was kicking an inflated pig's bladder around the yard on butchering day.   

My great grandfather, the nicest man you could ever meet, was a little bald gnome somewhere under five feet tall. In the wintertime he would sit around listening to the radio turned full volume while shucking ears of popcorn.  And my great grandmother, who had a fluty Julia Childs-esque voice, and whose corset created a formidable prow, was always on his case to turn that radio down.  When I asked her once what had convinced her to marry him back in 1918, she got a faraway look as she told me about how his family had a piano and they would take sleigh rides to his house and have a wonderful time singing around the piano in the evening and eating popcorn.  I guess he was lucky they had that piano.  And he loved popcorn until the day he died. 

My great grandfather was a baker and a young father with 5 children during the Great Depression. He was my living history, although I didn't realize it or appreciate it at the time I knew him. I wish I had learned more from him about what food and farming was like back when. It seems like any new sustainable food system is going to look a lot like the small farm based agricultural system we used to have - before 1950 and the post-war boom in petrochemical agriculture and plant hybridization.  It would be hard to imagine what that earlier time looked like exactly, except that Greenfield Village is only about 40 minutes away in Dearborn. 

Related to some stove research I'm doing, I got a backstage tour of the historic homes of Greenfield Village this week with "Colonial Queen" Cathy Cwiek.  Queen Cathy is Manager of Historic Foodways and Domestic Life Programs at Greenfield Village and she's taught hearth and woodstove cookery there for the past 24 years.  And she is actually the Queen - she knows exactly who among the staff is flouting the rules by not wearing her stays or her corsets. And they are in trouble. 

Last Friday was the opening of Greenfield Village's "Holiday Nights," with special programs from 6:30-10:00 pm on the weekends in December.  One of the interesting things they do during Holiday Nights is - cook.  On the antique stoves and hearths, using recipes from the popular cookbooks of the time (mostly late 1700s to late 1800s). 

Cathy let me tag along as she made final rounds of the Christmas-decked homes to make sure all the docents had what they needed and as she said "just to make sure all the "i's" are dotted."  She pointed out in particular a beautiful Limoges dinner service, set for the holiday table, and the period children's toys, as among the things they don't often display.  At each home we found  2 or 3 women in the kitchen, preparing menus of historic dishes with old time techniques and equipment. Part of the docent's job is to prepare a meal and then eat it (and talk about it) while people are coming and going (and drooling over what is on the table).  

Upon opening the door of each house, Cathy sniffed the air to gauge what smells were wafting from the kitchens. That's the level of detail she wants visitors to experience.  In addition to the regular daily cooking, there was also much holiday pie, cake and pudding making going on. Egg whites being whipped to stiff peaks with a narrow fork. Plum pudding wrapped in cheesecloth before being boiled. Rolling out of pie dough for a cranberry pie.  And the finished treats displayed on the holiday table, I think destined for consumption that evening. 

In each kitchen Cathy explained some of the finer points of pre-modern cookery to me. Preparation of a good fire and proper management and banking of the coals. How a rotisserie works, threading a leg of lamb, for example, with a huge metal skewer and then pinning it in place. Placement of a tin reflecting oven in front of the fire for baking biscuits.  How the black dome of a brick bread oven turns white when it has reached the correct temperature. The meaning (with real examples) of "clinkers" and "hogsheads." I found it, of course, riveting. 

It was jaw-dropping to see how people used to cook.  With fire. Very hot fire.  And cast iron. Very heavy cast iron.  And little more than that. And the food all looked and smelled intensely delicious. Cathy says that this kind of cooking is the most sensuous cooking. You have to use all of your senses to judge - how the fire looks, how the cooking pot sounds, how the dough feels. Cooking like this is managing and timing many different resources at once - wood for the fire, heat for the cooking, food for the meal. Knowing when to turn each each dish so it cooks evenly. And near every fire, a pot of boiling water. Talk about multi-tasking. 

The best part may have been Firestone Farm, boyhood home of Harvey Firestone of Firestone Tires. Still a working farm, it's planted with apple trees, grape vines and a big garden, and has a big barn in back and a pen for the three heirloom Poland China pigs that will be meeting their maker a little bit later this month (December 21st is butchering day in case you're interested in kicking an inflated pig's bladder around the yard). 

At the Firestone farmhouse, the sniff test said carrots and onions frying in a cast iron pan on top of a coal-fired stove make my stomach rumble.  Sadie, Jan, and Claire had already put pork chops and sauerkraut in the oven while a pan of biscuits stayed warm on top. While we watched, Claire wove the lattice crust for a cranberry pie. 

Sadie told me that the rest of the staff were none too happy when she banned garlic from the Firestone kitchen this year. Apparently, it wasn't used much in the 1880s. She also described how they follow one of the manuals for home management of the time that prescribed a certain method of organization for the pantry and a specific day of the week for cleaning, washing, bread-baking, etc.  Friday was a cleaning day, so they would be opening up the crocks of sauerkraut in the basement to take out any accumulated scum.  

When she took me to see the downstairs preserving room I was impressed with the enormous crocks of sauerkraut (crocks so big they only make them in England now), cheesecloth bags of bacon and fatback hanging from the rafters (apparently cheesecloth was the miracle product of the 1800s), and paper wrapped jars of fruit preserves (like gooseberry, my Grampa's favorite) and canned tomatoes in the old time jars with rubber gaskets.  Cathy said animal bladders also make good covers for preserves, stretched over the top of the jar. 

It's a funny feeling, traveling back in time. I still want to go back there, even though I know it's a romanticized version I have in my head (a pox on you Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls!).  What's amazing is that you can go back, at least a little bit.  

In the description about Greenfield Village they say that Henry Ford could have been a collector of great art or any other expensive thing, but what he chose instead was to safeguard the common things that tell us something about what we share as Americans.  Ford says: 

"I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used.... When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition..." 

When I asked Sadie what's the best thing about her job, she said that she loves how living history inspires other people to love history, that it shows us something about what's important and who we are as a people. It reminds us of our national and cultural identity.  

Speaking of identity, it also brings to the fore the contribution, ingenuity and hard work of those strong women, invisible in most history books, who fed their families with nothing between them and the burning flames of the cooking fire but a cast iron pot heavy enough to fell a pig.  


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