Monday, October 31, 2011

Preserving the Harvest - Fresh Eggs

Last year and this year, at the Hartwell Tavern food preservation event, I put up fresh eggs, in an 18th century manner, to last all winter without refrigeration. This is the recipe I was given, but I don't know where it comes from:
To use lard or shortening to coat the eggs, first melt the grease and cool it till it begins to solidify again. Dip each egg in the melted grease individually and set them on a paper towel to dry. When the shortening or lard is dry on the eggs, rub the eggs with a clean towel, removing excess solid grease. Rub gently and buff each egg. Now repeat the process, before the shortening solidifies. Work fast, allowing the shortening to get almost solid before re-heating it. When dry put them in a box of ash and keep them covered until use.
Eggs should always be packed with the small end down, because the yolk will not settle toward the small end so readily as toward the large end or the side. It is important to have clean eggs but do not wash them as it removes the protective covering.
I've since done my own research; see below for documentation.
Last year, I melted commercial lard (the kind you can buy in some grocery stores, that's labeled "lard" and "manteca"). It was a chilly day, so I hardly had to let it cool at all. I rubbed the eggs, and then rubbed them clean. I had ashes sifted from the fireplace and a wooden box, and I put in a layer of ashes, set in eggs small end down, covered them with ashes, laid in a second layer, and covered them with ashes. I put the box in my "root cellar" (my basement) and kept them there from October. Every week or two I went down and fished out another egg for breakfast, and each egg was as fresh as the last. In mid-April, when my basement became palpably warmer, I put the the last four eggs in the fridge, and finally used them to make Hannah Glasse's recipe for nun's cake for a tea at the Needham reenactment, which cake was eaten with relish by all (particularly as I had substituted currants for caraway seeds).

Why ashes? Why not sand, as you use for potatoes? It might be for some chemical property of the ashes, but after fishing out eggs all winter, I think it's because ashes are soft, and if you were scrabbling your fingers through sand, you'd be too likely to break an egg. The Universal Cook, and City and Country Housekeeper recommends salt, but essentially everyone in the 18th century had a fireplace, so ashes were free for the labor of sifting them.
Why small end down? I am told that it is to keep the yolk from settling against the shell, but I haven't found documentation of it.
This year, I used a mixture of leftover bacon fat and sausage grease. It was messier, but we'll see if it works as well. Also, I buried the eggs in last year's ashes, and I found I couldn't pack the eggs as closely. It would have been better to empty the ashes into another container and layer them back in as I went.
Here are some more experiments to try:
  • What temperature is my basement in winter? Colder than many people's since I heat with a low temperature heat pump rather than a gas or oil furnace.
  • If I leave the eggs in the basement after it warms up in spring, how long will they stay fresh?
  • This year, I didn't rub the eggs after greasing them. Will there be any ill effect other than it being messier?


From The Universal Cook, and City and Country Housekeeper, by Francis Collingwood and John Woollams, 1792, p. 333.
From The London Magazine or The Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, Vol. XIX For the Year MDCCL (1750), p. 180.
The Art of Hatching and Bringing up Domestick Fowls, &c., By M. de Reaumur, Of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris. Printed for C. Davis, London, MDCCL (1750), pp. 412–414.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Preserving the Harvest - Herbs

Herbalist Deb Fate-Mental taught our guests about herbs - what they were used for and how they were preserved.  Here is her report from Saturday's "Preserving the Harvest".

Deb shares her knowledge of herbs with our guests

Due to the warmer weather this year I was able to bring many fresh herbs as well as a few dried ones for my herb table at Preserving the Harvest.  I grow mainly traditional English herbs along with a few native North American plants.  I brought some good English staples – mugwort, comfrey, roses, violet, dandelion, burdock, yellowdock, horseradish, angelica, hyssop, lavender, witch hazel, oak, yarrow, lady’s mantle – and one native American herb, Lobelia inflata, that became quite popular in the early 19th Century.   I had also made a conserve of rosehips to show people different methods of preservation, along with herbs preserved in oil and ones that had been dried.  In the morning I made electuaries, little herb candies.  The ones I made were for sore throats and contained powered marshmallow root and powdered slippery elm bark held together by honey.  These were used just like we use throat lozenges today (that’s where we get the idea from).  I ended up having quite a few as my voice and throat tired out by early afternoon!   

We had a lot of visitors, many of which were quite curious, asked questions and made comments -- "This, I like!"  There seemed to be several themes running through the day.  The first was the belief that our ancestors gathered much of their medicinals and that they were native American plants. I’ve not seen much documentation of settlers using native American plants until the 19th Century.  Describing them, yes.   Noting how natives used them, yes but our ancestors using them, outside rare occurrences, no.  Our ancestors brought plant seeds with them, along with the women’s Books of Physick, and planted gardens.   English people planted good English herbs.  

The second theme I noticed revolved around isolationism.  This was especially apparent as I was next to Val, who was making mead with popular spices of the day (cinnamon, cloves, pepper, ginger, etc.).  People seemed to think that colonial people moved here to become isolationists and that everything was local and that trade was something to be avoided.  Many people assumed that all those exotic spices were grown here.  I got the same reaction when people found I had used olive oil for preserving the herbs.   “I thought the colonists didn’t want to trade for anything with anyone.”  Really?!!! I heard that several times throughout the day. Needless to say, we had lots of teaching moments.

It was a great day and a wonderful opportunity to educate people.  I think people learn much more about 18th Century life from displays and demonstrations like Preserving the Harvest than they do from watching battle reenactments.  I get asked very few questions at reenactments but was overwhelmed by really good questions on Saturday.  This event was excellent and great fun!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Preserving the Harvest -- In a Pickle

I selected pickling as one of my demonstrations/experiments, though it will be hard to top last year's pickle-o-rama brought to us by Niels & Carmen, which included everything from cucumbers to samphire.
Last year's picklefest!

On a smaller scale, I tackled pickled mushrooms, beets, turnips and carrots.  What was pretty interesting about the period receipts, was the wide use of mace, peppercorns, nutmeg, and allspice.  Very different from the typical herbs and spices we generally think of when we think of pickles.  Here is the receipt I used.  Since I was not planning on storing the pickles I made, I put them in sterile modern canning jars and passed on using a bladder to seal them.

From "The Compleat Housewife"

I also picked beets, turnips and carrots from a receipt in "The Pennsylvania Housewife" written by Past Masters in Early American Domestic Arts.  What was intriguing, was that the receipt called for cochineal (which are dried beetles used to dye things a wonderful scarlet color -- think British officer's coats).  Why would you need to add an expensive dye for something that had beet juice in it? I will make these pickles again without the cochineal to see if it really made a difference, but I'm guessing that the turnips wouldn't have turned out a deep pink and the carrots wouldn't have taken on the wonderful red color that they did just from the beet juice alone.  Funny, you could always expect a reaction every time you showed the tourist kids the vile of cochineal beetles and explained that they are still used today for natural red food coloring -- "EEEEWWW, I've eaten bugs!"

Pickled beets, turnips & carrots

While searching the period cookbooks, my husband Ken got a kick out of one receipt in particular -- Pickling Sparrows.  Seems as if larks or squabs could be used as well.  The pickling process took several months and -- "when the bones are dissolved, they are fit to eat".  Not sure I'll be trying that receipt next year.  Anyone else want to give that one a try?

Coming tomorrow -- our herbalist.......

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Preserving the Harvest - The Learning Process

 Living in a time when a full bounty of almost any food imaginable is available year round at your local grocery store,  it's hard for most people to wrap their minds around the concept of transforming today's harvest into forms that will last till things start growing again months from now -- and without the benefit of refrigeration and modern canning practices.  At our "Preserving the Harvest" event at Hartwell Tavern our guests were exposed to a variety of methods used to ensure a food supply through the winter and early spring.

Over the next week, we'll share some of the food preservation techniques we tried.  Most of the time we can reasonably reproduce a receipt from a period cookbook, servant's directory or household guide, even when it involves obtaining that not so readily available ingredient, but what we often are missing is the common knowledge base of the time which most often it is not so much the how you do things but why you do them.  By actually going through the process you frequently learn more about what you don't know and that's where the real fun is - in trying to unlock these mysteries!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

More Transitions, More Questions

As we discussed in our previous post, during the mid-1770's, fashion seems to be making a transition from the the dominant stomacher front style to other gown front configurations.

Looking at some more satires and fashion plates from the mid-seventies, we are noticing what appears to be the makings of the zone front gown.  All of these prints are courtesy of the Lewis Wapole Library.

This print above,  is a 1776 fashion plate.  The woman on the left wears a gown that has trim along the robing lines and a line of ruching down the center front of the stomacher section.

Another selection from 1776, a satire, shows what looks like an inverted stomacher (in modern lingo is what is often referred to as a "zone") with trimming on either side of the stomacher, and a line of ruching down the front similar to the previous print.

While we're making fun of fashion -- high hair and cork rumps in this case, here's a satire dated 1777, where both women are wearing gowns with ruching around the neck and down the side front openings. The front of the gown on the left bears a resemblance to the way the gown in the first print was trimmed.

Once again, a satire goofing on big hair,  her gown appears to be some sort of zone front also with trim around the neck and down the side openings like the previous examples.

Is this the genesis of the zone front style? And/or is this new look a transition to a center front closing gown? Another thing to ponder - since three of these prints are lampooning high fashion, is the artist specifically showing new gown styles as an integral part of the satire?  Let us know what you think.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Transition:18th Century Styles

When did it happen? When did the changes begin that brought the 18th century from sober and long standing styles, to new and evolving styles? We are really going to look closely at primary sources to try and determine when and how those changes took place.
Lewis Walpole Library
This print from the Lewis Walpole Library is dated 1775.  Notice that the woman's gown no longer sports robings on either side.  Also notice that it does not close center front, the opening is still there, but much narrower. 

Not a closed front gown, and not an open front either!  So the next logical step is to assume this is a transition from one style -stomacher and robings- to the next-center front closing gown.  Also note the stripes on the sleeves are up and down, not sideways.

  This print from 1775 shows us a woman at home wearing undress, having her corns cut!


This zoomed in view shows us she is wearing a jacket in the French style.  This excerpt from the Lady's Magazine, May 1775, gives us the clue as to what is going on.

"Nightgowns in the French jacket fashion, flying back and tying behind with large bunches of ribbon. Sashes round the waist, and fastened with a small buckle."

The term nightgowns is referencing English fitted gowns, telling us that now they flying back like a French jacket.  This jacket fits the description, it is not closed and appears loose to the body and has a sash around the waist.  Dovetailing perfectly to the description given in the Lady's Magazine.  Is this the transition to the "zone" gown?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What gown style is right for me?

In our area we reenact the period from 1770-1783.  Will one gown work for us?  Probably, but that question and answer requires some thought and some research.  Here's the thing, your clothing doesn't have to be the latest in fashion, by the same token, you shouldn't be wearing styles that haven't been invented yet.  (you can go back but not forward) And frankly, it's the latter that needs to be addressed as we take steps towards greater authenticity.

The basic rule of dressing for 18th century reenactors has essentially been -- stomacher front gown for French & Indian War and a center front closing gown for Rev War.  In our humble opinion we need to be a bit more specific than that and base our choices on documented research not reenactor tradition.  The busy bees at the Hive have been pondering this as of late and are trying to nail down a date when the front closing gown started to take hold.  Examination of  artwork would suggest somewhere around 1775-1778.

This first image by Anna Frankland Lewis is dated 1774.


 This is her version of the "Dress of the Year" which would make it in the forefront of fashion in 1774.  It is still a gown with an open front, with probably gauze or lace trimmings and a vertical decoration running down either side of bodice center fronts. Make note of the fact that this still a fashion plate, not a real gown.

This next watercolor by Anna Frankland Lewis is the earliest representation of a closed front gown that we have yet found and it is dated 1775.

 This is Anna's interpretation of either a fashion plate or image from an almanac. You can clearly see the closed front bodice of this gown.  High fashion in 1775- in silk.

 This blown up version shows clearly the gown meeting in center front, with the same vertical trimming at center front as the earlier gown. The aesthetic has changed.  This is a pretty dramatic change for a gown style that has been in place for many decades.  It is daring, revolutionary and cutting edge. 

How long did it take for this fashion to reach down into everyday life of the ordinary woman?  Right now in 2011 it takes about a year after seeing something trendy in New York City to see the same fashion trend in small town Massachusetts and we have the internet!  and magazines! and TV!

Let's look at the questions this all brings up. 

Was there a transition style from one to the other?

Where does the so called zone gown fit into the equation?

How quickly does the front closing gown become the style of choice in the colonies - especially for the poor and middle class?

How did one learn how to make this new style? 

So what are you finding?  When are you seeing center front closing gowns appearing and when are they being worn by the masses (Colonial & English women)?   Your thoughts?
The buzzing bees