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December 21, 2011

I have a hobby that some might consider to be slightly unusual. I research and cook food from historical recipes.  I love food and I love history-and my endeavors in the kitchen are a way for me to connect the two and take a “bite from the past”.

Why the fascination with historical food? For thousands of years, before the age of McDonald’s, take-out Chinese, and microwave dinners, food was a central-if not *the* central part of a person’s day.  Putting a meal on the table took hours, sometimes days of preparation.  Meat had to be caught and slaughtered.  Vegetables and grains had to be grown, harvested and ground or preserved.  Cheese and butter were made by hand.  Menus were often limited to the food available in the immediate area-that meant no oranges in Ohio.  And once you had assembled the ingredients, cooking over a stove or open fire took considerably longer than five minutes of zapping most of us need to get a meal to the table.

My fascination with historical food really began in grade school. My favorite scenes on my favorite show, “Little House on the Prairie” were the ones in which Ma was cooking in the big black kettle over the fire-or the family was eating out of wooden bowls and drinking from tin cups.  But it reached a fever pitch this past summer when my family visited Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.  It’s one of my favorite places on Earth (for history lovers, it is a *must-see*) and it’s home to the Eagle Tavern. Built in 1831, this historical restaurant served as a stop for weary Michigan stagecoach travelers and now, it serves up an authentic mid-1800’s menu to weary tourists.  We feasted at wooden tables with clay dinnerware.  Our lunch included pickled vegetables, dandelion soup, pork and apple pie and homemade effervescing cherry drink!  It was delicious, of course. But sitting there at the table by the light of candles and fireplaces, I felt transported. In my mind’s eye, I could hear the swish of petticoats and skirts, the clopping of horse hooves on the street outside and I wondered-could I make this kind of magic in my home?

There are a wealth of vintage recipes available online.  My favorite websites include a Vintage Recipes index, a site full of Old Elizabethan Recipes and the recipe index on Colonial Williamsburg’s website. There are also a ton of cookbooks available at the library and on Amazon.  This is where I find most of my recipes.

There are some challenges to cooking old world style.  Many times, the recipes contain the ingredients but no instructions. Or they contain the ingredients but no estimation of how much of each item to use.  Cooking times and temperatures are often vague (think about it-you couldn’t set a woodstove to bake at 350 degrees, could you?). To me, part of the fun is figuring out how to make the recipe work.

Now a few disclosures. I am not, nor have I ever been, a professional cook or baker. In fact, my mother rarely let me into the kitchen as a child because she said I was too messy (I still am.)  I like to cook but I really, really, really like to bake-so you may see more of those types of recipes on this blog.  I’ll also be substituting ingredients for more modern counterparts on occasion-for instance, Crisco for suet and skim milk for whole (unless it’s absolutely necessary).  I plan to type out the recipe as written and then give you my translation.  I’m going to try to stick to recipes in books published prior to the 1920’s.

And the rest we’ll just make up as we go along. I made a recipe from a cookbook published in 1898 for a party tonight. We’ll see how it goes over! But I hope that my first recipe post will be figgy pudding for Christmas.  Stay tuned!