Early Thanksgivings were no picnics
Early Thanksgivings were no picnics
With conveniences such as the hearth, cooking was arduous for frontier women
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Ask anyone who has ever prepared the Thanks giving feast: Cooking that celebratory meal is no mean feat. The dizzying business of plan ning, shopping, preparing and then timing and tending the preparation of several dishes is a daunting challenge.
So pity the poor pioneer housewife faced with a similar task in the wilder ness of Western Reserve Ohio in the mid-1800s.
Given the era's rigid lines separating men's and women's work, tasks in the kitchen fell almost exclusively to women.
"You rarely would have found a man helping to peel potatoes," says Heather Faur, master historical interpreter for Hale Farm & Village, a mid-1800s living museum. "Women had their spheres of responsibility, and men had theirs."
Wood smoke lingers lightly on the chill breeze at Hale Farm in Bath Township. Bare wood floors, trod by generations of inhabitants and guests, creak faintly as Faur and another historic interpreter, Katie McNamara, prepare a Thanksgiving dinner as it would have been done in 1861.
At least two women would typically be working in the kitchen. All women were expected to be proficient cooks, skilled at homemaking. "The perception is they were very rigid with their domestic talents," Faur says. "But if you look at documents, you find that some women disliked cooking and weren't very good at it."
A major meal of thanksgiving became all the more fearsome for such a cook. Even an adroit homemaker faced a procession of tasks that would dishearten the modern cook.
The average farmstead housewife cooked that which was grown or put up on the family farm, though the Ohio & Erie Canal made available an increasing array of staples such as flour and sugar, as well as exotic ingredients like lemons and pineapples.
In many regards, the Thanksgiving meal preparation began months earlier. Things commonly found on the holiday table were far more labor intensive than a trip to the grocer. The ingredient list was only as varied as the land's yield and a farm wife's enterprise. Cheeses had been made and cured. Mincemeat, popular for pies, was chiefly a way to preserve some of the excess beef, suet and fruits previously harvested and put up in crocks. Meats, which she had earlier butchered and dressed, were typically heavily salted for storage, so they had to be soaked in several changes of water - which someone had to pump or otherwise draw. She would make her own butter, gather eggs, kill and dress a bird, dig potatoes, cut squashes and pick apples from garden and groves.
Judy Harris, a veteran interpreter at Hale, marvels at the ingenuity and stamina of her predecessors.
"We take so much for granted, living in a microwave world - and I'm guilty," she says. "But making your own bread, or making your own crackers for soup . . ." Harris' voice trails off. Clearly, a woman's work was never done.
Oh, yes - and tend the oven.
"Katie, you want to come over here and blow on these?" Faur asks. McNamara crouches down in her long, maroon "wash dress" worn for housework and begins breathing onto the embers in the old step stove. A mid-1840s-style cast-iron Perfection stove, it's a model that would have been found in an average middle-class home of the era.
In the day, the range was a huge innovation. Those who lacked one were left to cooking in the hearth, essentially a fireplace where bake pots stood and had to be filled with food and baked, one at a time.
"The stoves themselves weren't terribly expensive," says Faur. "It was the freight cost. They weigh a ton. Literally."
McNamara busies herself preparing a pumpkin pie. Forget Libby's. There are pumpkin chunks stewing on top of the stove. Once tender, they are to be drained, dried a bit, mashed, sieved, cooled and then mixed with other ingredients before the resulting filling is scraped into a shell and baked.
Baking, though not nearly so sophisticated as with today's rich assembly of ingredients, was still very much an art. After all, in the days before carefully insulated ovens with electronic thermostats, banking an even, consistent fire and a fine sense of timing played into any home cook's capacity to produce something edible, much less artful.
They ate early
The proceedings would begin very early in the day, easily close to dawn. Apart from the sheer volume of work left to the hands of the women feeding a farm family, a crucial factor overshadowed their timing.
"Traditionally, your biggest meal of the day was that afternoon meal," Faur says. Often, guests traveled for miles to share the table. Risky paths and unpaved roads were harrowing once darkness fell. In order to leave plenty of time for visiting before dusk threatened, people ate early.
"So to put a meal on the table at 1 or 2 o'clock, you'd probably have to start it, oh, at 7 a.m. or sooner," Faur says, noting that some things would have been made the day before, such as your pies, or else taken from the family larder.
Though menus would vary, turkey, which flourished wild throughout most of the northeastern United States, was a common centerpiece to the meal. The typical table of the era also included vegetables such as mashed turnips or potatoes, succotash, carrot pudding (much like a souffle), cranberry and apple sauces, apple bread (the fruit proliferated), a variety of pies such as apple and pumpkin, and Scotch pudding (a lemon-based custard pie).
"You would have chicken, along with turkey if you could afford it," she adds. "A lot of it really was personal taste. Or if you caught a turkey and it was small, you might supplement with chicken or some other meat - or perhaps a chicken and vegetable pie."
Fowl was roasted in a reflector oven, a contrivance popularized during the 1700s. The bird was placed on a spit in a metal box with one side left open, and vegetables could be piled into the oven's bottom. That side was placed in front of the burning embers in the hearth. Surrounded by shiny metal plates, the meat slowly cooked. The reflector was designed so that the spit could be turned then positioned in notches to hold it in place. Over the course of roughly three hours, replete with regular turning and basting (often through a small door that opened to minimize heat loss) a 5-pound bird turned golden brown.
"You would want to baste it often," says Harris. "Wild birds were leaner, and had a much different taste, too."
Anyone with wits would wonder why the bird didn't rest in a pan on the wood-fired oven. Surely it would have been easier and cook more evenly.
"Oh, no," Faur objects. "It was a complaint of the 19th century - people didn't like meats roasted in the oven. It had a 'stovey' taste. And maybe it was also the absence of the flavor of wood smoke a hearth provides."
Harris is doing some of the cooking in Hale's nearby salt box house. She talks about the dishes common to the era that she often prepares: lots of soups, macaroni and cheese, carrot or corn puddings. She has just finished a dish that could also have appeared on a Thanksgiving table of the era: rice pudding baked in a pie crust.
"Why the shell? It just made it heartier," Harris says. "Even potatoes were done that way, a potato pie. With the crust on top, it keeps everything moist." Flavorings might included nutmeg or cinnamon, a bit of brandy and possibly lemon peel if you had it - as much an act of waste-not thrift as artful seasoning.
"Women would make rose brandy and other flavored waters," Harris says. Meanwhile, she adds, there were other tasks that filled in the farm wife's "spare" time.
"During summer, your chickens give you a lot more eggs, so to preserve them you'd make noodles," Harris says. Alternatively, homemakers would pack the eggs pointy-end down in crocks layered with salt.
"That would preserve them as 'fresh' for about a year," she says.
Calling hearth-cooking difficult doesn't quite sum it up, Harris says.
"It's different. All hearths are different. This hearth draws draft differently and gets smoky - but you learn its way and learn your tricks," she laughs.
"It would be very hustle-bustle and busy, getting everything prepared on the cookstove," says Harris. "You'd have other members of the family helping, rather than doing it all on your own."
She pauses, and basks over a small cupboard brimming with a macaroni casserole, plates of cookies, some homemade biscuits and a carrot pudding she had been carefully laying aside, much like a 19th century homemaker preparing for an onslaught of hungry guests.
"But I do know one thing," she adds. "It would all smell wonderful. "
"resident shameless hussie"