I was flipping through the channels the other day and came across a show that has quickly become my new favorite – “A Taste of History” on RLTV. On each 30-minute long episode, Chef Walter Staib, an international restaurant consultant, visits historic sites and uses their kitchens to prepare dishes of their time period. Many episodes are filmed in Philadelphia, in the hearth kitchen of Rittenhousetowne. Others are filmed on location at sites such as Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier. Chef Staib makes full use of the various cooking implements as he demonstrates methods of cooking foods that were used hundreds of years ago. What really struck me while watching was the high level of mastery a typical cook or chef needed to have in order to efficiently and expertly prepare all the different courses of meals that were typical of upper-class tables in the 1700’s and 1800’s. The dance of “spiders” (cast iron pans with legs for setting over hot coals), hanging pots of stews and broths, roasting spits and dessert pans is truly intricate and impressive. As a home cook, I don’t know that I’d ever be able to accurately and efficiently prepare such a feast and have all the dishes emerge from the kitchen at the exact time they’re expected, with the flavor they’re meant to have. This makes me respect even more the cooks and chefs of the time, many of whom were slaves, such as George Washington’s famed chef Hercules, who was somewhat of a “celebrity chef” of his day. He was able to sell leftovers of his dishes and bought himself fancy tailored clothing. In 1797, he escaped from Mount Vernon, however he was later granted his freedom by Martha Washington in her husband’s will upon his death.
In my favorite few episodes, Chef Staib visits Monticello, the Virginia estate of founding father Thomas Jefferson. There, he uses the kitchen on premises to whip up some truly unique and delectable dishes – Stuffed Cabbage with Fried Asparagus, Bouilli with Bouillon Potatoes, White Bean and Bacon Soup, Chicken Fricassee, Herbed Barley and Curried Lamb with Rice Pilaf and Stewed Mushrooms. Along with his observations on how food was prepared in Jefferson’s kitchens, Chef Staib also discusses Jefferson’s penchant for gardening during a garden tour, as well as visiting the beer and wine cellars and learning more about James Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved cook who accompanied Jefferson to France in order to be trained in French cookery.
If you’re a fan of cooking shows and of history, “A Taste of History” will definitely keep you entertained, and might even provide you with the inspiration to look into some historical recipes and try your hand at old cooking methods.