“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.

Colonial Thanksgiving recipe – Mary Randolph’s Pumpkin Pudding

Mary Randolph, a relative of Thomas Jefferson, published her cookbook, The Virginia Housewife in 1838.  The volume is notable for its use of items native to the colonies, such as pumpkins, squash, shellfish and venison, and preparations familiar to English cooks.  In honor of Thanksgiving, I whipped up a batch of individual pumpkin puddings to take to my family’s Thanksgiving luncheon.

The first step in preparing the puddings is to make a “puff paste,” or pastry crust.  Ms. Randolph’s recipe:

TO MAKE PUFF PASTE.

Sift a quart of flour, leave out a little for rolling the paste, make up
the remainder with cold water into a stiff paste, knead it well, and
roll it out several times; wash the salt from a pound of butter, divide
it into four parts, put one of them on the paste in little bits, fold it
up, and continue to roll it till the butter is well mixed; then put
another portion of butter, roll it in the same manner; do this till all
the butter is mingled with the paste; touch it very lightly with the
hands in making–bake it in a moderate oven, that will permit it to
rise, but will not make it brown. Good paste must look white, and as
light as a feather.

I mixed the water into the flour in 3 tablespoon increments, mixing first with a spatula, then later with my hands as the dough began to come together.  Following Ms. Randolph’s instructions, I rolled out the dough, then smushed bits of cold butter into it by hand.  I modified the recipe at this point, down to one stick of butter rather than one pound.  This was because the dough got very moist and sticky very quickly and I wanted to make sure it stayed a bit flaky.  When I was done, I pulled off bits of dough, rolled them and flattened them by hand into two muffin tins.  I popped them in the oven and baked them off for about ten minutes, until they were a tiny bit brown.  On to the pudding!

The pumpkin was central to the diet of colonial settlers once it had been introduced to them by the native Americans.  Its thick skin and rich flesh, easily sweetened and flavored with staple spices of the time like nutmeg and mace, made for easy storage in the cold winter months and a nutritious and tasty dish when prepared in a pudding or pie.  The pumpkin pudding would have been an earlier use of pumpkin than pie, as pudding was a common and well-known dish from England.  Unlike today’s creamy dessert, a colonial pudding would have been closer to a thick, spicy custard.

Mary Randolph’s pumpkin pudding recipe uses typical colonial spices, nutmeg and mace, and includes brandy, which was also used in practically every colonial dish for a gentle, sweet flavor.  Ms. Randolph’s pumpkin pudding recipe:

PUMPKIN PUDDING.

Stew a fine sweet pumpkin till soft and dry; rub it through a sieve, mix
with the pulp six eggs quite light, a quarter of a pound of butter, half
a pint of new milk, some pounded ginger and nutmeg, a wine glass of
brandy, and sugar to your taste. Should it be too liquid, stew it a
little drier, put a paste round the edges, and in the bottom of a
shallow dish or plate–pour in the mixture, cut some thin bits of paste,
twist them, and lay them across the top, and bake it nicely.

I usually make pumpkin pies from homegrown pumpkins from my own garden, but I didn’t get my plants in the ground until late this year and didn’t have any pumpkins to harvest 😦

Settling for store-bought, I pulled together the other ingredients:

The recipe called for a whole pumpkin, stewed.  Since I used canned pumpkin, I adjusted the amount the amount of the other wet ingredients down to 5 eggs (instead of 6) and 1/4 cup of milk (rather than a pint).  I was glad I did once all the ingredients were mixed, as the batter was very liquidy.

Once the batter was all mixed, I poured it into the prepared pastry shells and baked them for about half an hour, until the edges started to brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle of one came out clean.

These were delicious!  Everyone at Thanksgiving loved them.  The flavor is very light and not the traditional “pumpkin pie” spicy flavor.  The use of nutmeg, mace and brandy are very colonial, and also very yummy.

Roundup of Virginia Thanksgiving food history events

As any Virginian worth his or her salt can tell you, Thanksgiving started right here in the Old Dominion.  In 1619, a full two years before the famous “first Thanksgiving” of the New England pilgrims, English settlers at Berkeley Hundred (what would later become Berkeley Plantation) held a “day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”  One can be sure a feast was a part of their festivities.

Owing to the Commonwealth’s long history of giving thanks and feasting, there are plenty of food history events in the coming days:

*  Natural Bridge – A fall harvest feast will be prepared in the Monacan Indian Village each day from Tuesday, Nov. 20 through Sunday, Nov. 25.  Costumed interpreters will prepare such native dishes as turkey, trout, corn, cornbread and berry dishes.  Cooking techniques include open fire, in clay and metal pots and on hot stones, according to Monacan Indian customs of the 1700’s.  Admission to Natural Bridge includes admission to the Monacan Indian Village.

*  Jamestown/Yorktown – “Foods and Feasts of Colonial Virginia” presents a look at the colonial methods of preparing food, both for the English settlers and for the Powhatan Indians who called the area home.  At the Jamestown Settlement, Native American cooking of venison, turkey, game and various stews over an open fire showcase the methods the Powhatan Indians used to prepare foods, while visitors can help unload a ship docked at the pier of such staples as salted fish and biscuit, and can try their hand at making a typical snack, a ship’s biscuit.  Inside the fort, hearth cooking demonstrations according to recipes published in 1604 and 1660 will take place, as well as processing of a whole hog into hams and bacon, and salting for preservation.  At the Yorktown Victory Center, visitors can learn how soldiers of the Revolutionary War ate, and can visit the re-created 1780’s farm for hearth cooking and food preservation demonstrations.

*  Stratford Hall (Westmoreland County) – At the historic plantation home of Robert E. Lee, visitors can enjoy a traditional Virginia Thanksgiving feast on Thanksgiving Day.  Crab bisque, roast turkey, Virginia baked ham, green beans with shallots, corn pudding, mashed potatoes, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, cranberry relish, cornbread, pumpkin pie and pecan pie are just a few of the Virginia specialties on the menu.

*  Colonial Williamsburg – Colonial American fare is on the menu at each of the historic taverns and restaurants in Colonial Williamsburg.  You can dine on traditional favorites like roast turkey, peanut soup, pumpkin pie, Eastern Shore sherried shrimp stew, mincemeat pie, beef roasts, butternut squash soup, caramel apple pie and many more.

 

In addition to the upcoming events, Louisa County has formed a hearth cooking guild to share historic 1800’s foodways and cooking methods using a hearth fire.  Keep an eye on the Louisa County Parks and Recreation website for information on upcoming hearth cooking events.