A Taste of the Past

Though apple fritters are still on menus today, they have a storied past, as do Texas barbecue, cornbread and blueberry jam. Culinary programs at living history museums across the country seek to tell the tales of dishes we still enjoy and ones that have fallen out of fashion.

Right now, as living history museums are preparing for and holding crowd-drawing annual harvest festivals in September, they’re making past traditions part of museum-goers’ present ones.
Living history museums serve up food to engage all guests’ senses, connecting them with people who lived long ago. And given today’s emphasis on eating locally grown and seasonal foods — things that harken to times when this was the way of life — more museums are finding their food-based programs growing in popularity.

A Farm in Brooklyn

When you think of New York City, it’s hard to imagine a real working farm, but the city’s oldest structure and first designated landmark is the Wycoff Farmhouse Museum in Brooklyn, N.Y., and crops still grow there.

Generations of Wycoffs farmed the surrounding land from about 1652 to 1901, and the family’s descendents donated the farmhouse to the city in 1969. Since then, the museum has brought to life the agrarian traditions of the area’s early Dutch and English settlers. With an active Community Demonstration Garden, a farmers’ market and a longstanding agricultural tradition, food is part of life at the Wycoff Farmhouse, perhaps even more so when Carolina Capehart, the museum’s culinary historian, is in the kitchen or hosting one of her Fireside Feasts. Capehart cooks at an open hearth, that is, over an open fire. “I’m not big on modern adaptations,” she said of her extensively researched, historically accurate food program. “The theme here is slow food and slow preparation. All the preparation is done by hand, no electricity, no gadgets.” Though her kitchen and cooking methods are period appropriate she pays attention to modern hygiene. Guests who participate in the food preparation wash their hands, and all surfaces and utensils are kept clean.

Capehart, who learned to cook as an interpreter at Conner Prairie, says, “I try to offer a variety [of foods], but I have gotten requests for apple fritters.” If apples are not in season, her fritter fans are out of luck, though the fried dessert takes center stage, along with fresh-pressed cider, at the annual Apple Festival in September. Fireside Feasts attract about 25 people, including adults and children, and everyone who attends also leaves with a recipe, or “receipt,” which is what recipes were called back in the early 1800s, the period in history on which Capehart bases the food programs.
“I like doing things that are similar to what we eat but with surprises,” she said. That might mean scalloped tomatoes, puddings that are boiled, or a pudding made with carrots.

Back on the Ranch

You can eat outdoors like a 1930s cowboy or dine formally as a Civil War era ranch owner at the George Ranch Historical Park in Fort Bend, Texas. A working 23,000-acre ranch that drew approximately 46,000 visitors last year, the park showcases more than 100 years of Texas history through the five families who settled there and worked the land.  “Food hasn’t changed all that much in the past 300 years,” said Nick Castelberg, the lead interpreter for the park’s popular Historic Food Ways program. “But it has the amazing capacity to cascade through generations and tie families together.” Lunches are held every Saturday and rotate among the park’s five historic homes — the 1830s Jones Stock Farm, the 1860s Ryon Prairie Home, the 1890s Davis Victorian Mansion and the 1930s George Ranch House.  Lunch is always casual and visitors experience a meal from the home’s time period — such as beef brisket with barbecue sauce, peach cobbler and fried catfish or beef stew and biscuits.

Guests can also enjoy historic hospitality and fine dining on Wednesday evenings at the Ryon Prairie Home, where an interpreter plays host as Colonel William Ryon presiding over an extravagant 1860s eight-course meal. Outdoors over an open fire or in one of the park’s indoor kitchens, cooking up history here does not mean sacrificing modern standards for food handling, cleanliness and proper temperatures. “We follow all modern health codes to a ‘T’ for both indoor and outdoor cooking,” said Castelberg, who is now working on his second cookbook.

When grilling outdoors, he said, “you learn to anticipate Mother Nature and to not work against her.” That might mean placing a coffee pot to stay warm on the up-wind side of the grill, while the down-wind side is used to keep things very hot. “The most important lesson of cooking in a primitive kitchen is to take your time and have fun. If you are in a hurry, you are not going to enjoy the experience,” he said. “Dutch ovens and open-fire grilling or roasting takes time and careful planning. So plan ahead and bring extra for the cook to enjoy.”

New England on the Menu

Spanning five states, four centuries and 36 historic houses and landscapes, Historic New England is the oldest and largest regional heritage organization in the country and boasted nearly 154,000 visitors last year. An organization so vast and wide-ranging touches 21 different communities throughout Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. And the properties that offer food programs all follow community-specific criteria for food preparation, said Susan Crampton, a spokeswoman at Historic New England, who is based in the organization’s headquarters at the Otis House Museum in Boston, Mass. Last year was its Year of the Kitchen, timed to coincide with its America’s Kitchens traveling exhibition and book of the same name, said Crampton, so its food programs have been in the recent spotlight. Ten places offer food programs, and Crampton observes that the most successful offerings are the ones that have been around long enough to become local traditions. The Coastal Growers’ Market at the Casey Farm in Saunderstown, R.I., is one of Historic New England’s most popular food programs, Crampton said. Held May through October, the market offers organically grown produce, pasture-fed meats, locally raised shellfish and baked goods.

The farm is a mid 18th-century homestead that overlooks Narrangansett Bay, where today’s farm managers sell its produce through a community-supported agricultural program to subscribers.

Another popular event is Afternoon Tea at the Beauport, Sleeper-McCann House, a turn-of-the-last-century summer estate in Gloucester, Mass., where an interpreter portraying Isabella Stewart Gardener, a Boston socialite and art collector attends. Gardner, who was a frequent guest at the estate, is a locally famous historic figure, most notably for her Boston home, which is now the Isabella Stewart Garner Museum. Historic New England’s seasonal harvest festivals are also a big hit, Crampton said. Pumpkin Day at Cogwell’s Grant in Essex, Mass., Jackson Hill Cider Day at the Jackson House in Portsmouth, N.H., and the Family Harvest Festival at the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury, Mass., all offer a taste of history along with family fun.

Seasonal Tastes

Cookbook author Amy Bess Miller led the group who founded the living history museum at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass., in 1960. Miller wrote “The Best of Shaker Cooking” with Persis Fuller  and the book takes a comprehensive approach to Shaker recipes and cooking, which is rooted in using fresh, seasonal foods. The museum’s site was the City of Peace, a Shaker community from 1790 to 1960 that was the third of 19 Shaker settlements in the United States. Today the museum has about 60,000 to 70,000 visitors annually. Some 750 acres of farmland are intact and its produce is the foundation of the menus at the Village Harvest Café and the Shaker Suppers program.

Chef Michael Roller is owner of Savory Harvest Catering, which operates the Village Harvest Café. “One of the things I really enjoy is taking classic Shaker recipes and using them in modern applications. We like to prepare what are typically larger portions and use them as small components of dishes on menus,” said Roller. “Parsnip cakes, tomato puddings, lobster croquettes, the recipes yield really great results that in moderation are delightful parts of any meal.” The café is open May through October and the fall brings back the Shaker Suppers program, where guests can sample a full buffet of dishes made from recipes in the museum founder’s cookbook. “The biggest lesson I have learned having used Shaker recipes is actually how forward thinking their approach was,” said Roller. “It was ‘a less is more’ mindset that in many ways is quite contemporary. Farm-to-table ingredients, prepared simply with little adulteration of the principal ingredients.”

The food programs stay true to the Shaker lifestyle and the demands of today. “We always observe all rules and regulations and make menus up that will conform to all health regulations,” said Roller. “We have a modern kitchen and café area with proper cooking and refrigeration equipment on site.” What’s more, organic and sustainable farming practices were a way of life for the Shakers. Visitors can also purchase produce, such as fresh eggs, herbs and vegetables, grown at Hancock Shaker Village from its Farm Cart.

Indiana Apple Season

The first museum in the country to pioneer the living history museum concept, Conner Prairie brings 19th-century Indiana to life. Set on 800 acres in Fishers, more than 175,000 people visit the museum annually. Guests get into the action at its Food Programs, too. At Taste the Past Thursdays, guests spend an afternoon making and sampling food, using historically accurate cooking methods and recipes. Hearthside Suppers, held during the winter months, also gets visitors cooking. What’s more, candlelight and historic parlor games after supper add to the evening’s ambience.
One food tradition at the museum, though, is only 25 years old. Come September through October, the long-awaited Apple Stand opens for business with caramel apples, cider, cider slushes, apple doughnuts, local apples and daily apple butter making demonstrations.

The Conner Prairie Alliance, initially made up of Junior League of Indianapolis members, opened an apple stand in an old pole barn to help out the fundraising efforts in 1985.
And what started as a humble apple stand now has its own building and is the museum’s largest fundraiser. Last year alone the store sold more than 14,000 caramel apples, both plain, nutty and gourmet. “The Apple Store at Conner Prairie offers some of the best Caramel Apples in central Indiana,” explained Megan Wiles, 2010 chair of the Apple Store. “Guests to the store may see the apples being dipped [by alliance members], but it is not a participatory experience.”

“I love to see the children enjoy their treats from the Apple Store,” says Mandy Hunter, an alliance member since 2009. “Whether it is a caramel apple or one of our specialty items, the pure happiness on their faces makes our hard work pay off.” –

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