“A Taste of History” showcases historical cooking techniques and recipes

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.

Step one to starting a baking business: Finding a location

So for the past year or so, I’ve been kicking around the idea of starting a home-based baking business.  It all started when I got a Kindle for Christmas and looked around for free books to put on it.  The Kindle store had a ton of free books.  The catch was that they were all so old that they were in the public domain.  No matter – I downloaded a bunch of old cookbooks and “receipt” books and started poring over them.  I quickly became fascinated with the simple, elegant preparations of such classic colonial American desserts as pumpkin puddings, various cakes and “biscuits” (the colonial equivalent of today’s cookies).  I made a few batches of tavern biscuits, a colonial shortbread flavored with mace, nutmeg and brandy, and they turned out delicious!  Everyone who at them raved about them, and many people told me I should consider selling them.

I already had some experience, having worked my first “real” job at a local gourmet bakery.  In my senior year of high school and my first few years of college, I baked batch after batch of gourmet chocolate fudge brownies with a cream cheese layer and a kahlua or amaretto glaze, old-fashioned chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies and sweet breads like pumpkin and lemon poppyseed.  I knew how to bake in large quantities, and I knew how to keep my product somewhat consistent.  I daydreamed about starting a company to sell historic desserts using local, artisan ingredients and including information on the history of the recipe and the cookbook’s author.  My plans were nothing more than a daydream, until I met Amy, the mother of one of my son’s school friends.  She bakes too, and we came to the conclusion, over a couple of beers, that we would dive into this adventure together.

First things first – we had to figure out where we would bake.  Initially, we had thought we’d be able to work out of one of our houses, but I checked with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who regulates bakeries and restaurants in Virginia, and discovered that, if you have a pet, a home kitchen used for a baking business must have a solid door that can be closed completely between the kitchen and the part of the house where the pet is.  Bummer.  My kitchen has a baby gate in the doorway, but no solid door.  Amy’s kitchen is open to the rest of her house.  Looks like we’ll have to find a commercial kitchen to work out of.

In the Richmond area, there’s a rental kitchen called Kitchen Thyme that rents kitchen space to bakers, caterers and food truck operators.  Unfortunately for us, we are basically bootstrapping this entire startup, so we weren’t willing to lay out a $200 deposit and pay hourly rental fees just to test the waters with our baked goods.  What that means is that finding a commercial kitchen is the highest priority, because until we know where we’ll be baking, we can’t really get started on the legal aspect of starting our business.  I have two weeks off work over my son’s holiday break from school, so my task during that time is to put together a proposal and look for organizations or companies that have commercial kitchens that might be willing to partner.  I have a few leads in that department, so I have my work cut out for me.  Wish me luck!