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Foodways of the Past – Historic sites invite us into their kitchens to see what’s cooking

On an August morning in 1830, the sisters are in the orchards, picking early apples. They grow a variety called transparent that ripens weeks ahead of most. The younger girls dare each other to climb to the top of the ladder to reach the highest fruit in the tree. Afterwards, they sit together in the kitchen, sorting through the baskets—some apples to eat, some to store, some to preserve. Later, they make an applesauce with dried apples and cider.

They invented a sleek tool for it: The crank handle ends in a blade, a loop and a set of prongs. Fix an apple on it firmly and move a small peeling blade up along the side. Then turn the handle. The apple spins against the blade, and the peel falls away. As the apple moves forward, in a few seconds it is peeled, cored, and sliced, and ready to fill a pie crust or dry by the chimney.

As berries and peaches ripen, historic houses and museums in the Berkshires are exploring food and gardens, and the people who gathered and prepared meals and ate together. Tours will look into Gilded Age kitchens at The Mount and Ventfort Hall in Lenox, and Naumkeag in Stockbridge, and into Herman Melville’s house and farm at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, and Hancock Shaker Village is opening its oven doors.

On August 4, chef Brian Alberg will lead a Makers Day on Hancock Shaker Village’s land. He and his workshop will pick vegetables and herbs from the CSA farm garden and learn how to turn them into a summer meal and linger over it with a glass of wine. And in a homelier activity through August, the village will invite visitors into the kitchen in a daily program called Shaker Foodways.

They will tour the gardens, says Cindy Dickinson, director of education. They will talk over the herbs and vegetables, rub a leaf of sweet cicely for the scent of anise. Then they will come into the kitchen in the Brick Dwelling and make an authentic recipe or two. They will not cook or bake over the open hearth, to save wear on the chimneys, but they may concoct a salad dressing with herbs or a quick pickle, or cornbread made with fresh corn.

In this kitchen, the Hancock Shakers cooked for the whole community, 100 people or more, says Kelsie Dalton, the curatorial intern at the museum, who is researching Shaker foodways this summer. She has been exploring the tools they made and invented—corn knives and cheese baskets and a spice grater large enough to powder the cinnamon for dozens of pies. She found a board with an inset blade for quartering apples, with indents to hold it between the knees.

The Shakers also raised and made foods to sell, she says. They were known for health and high quality. At Hancock they sold beef and fish, butter and cheese. 

They were known for seeds too, Dickinson says, for herbs and vegetables—marjoram and sage, blue cohosh and angelica, onions and leeks. They dried young corn and sold it in canisters to soak and cook. And she shows a black and white photograph of a traveling vehicle for baked beans. A century ago, the New England Shakers had a food truck.

Dalton walks through the kitchen, around the central chimney, showing the array of tools for feeding many people here at once. Built into the brick hearths, they had a bake oven for bread, deep fat fryers, kettles for steaming, and a roaster, and an oven for baking pies or cooking meats.

Up the road in Pittsfield, Herman Melville also had a broad hearth. His house centered around a brick chimney 12 feet square, so massive that Melville had written a long essay in its defense. His chimney was buttressed like a pyramid and “excavated on each floor for certain curious out-of-the-way cupboards and closets of all sorts and sizes, clinging here and there like nests in the crotches of some old oak.”

But his family would not have cooked with it. By the 1850s, the Melvilles would have had a cast iron range, an oven heated by wood, says Lesley Herzberg, executive director of the Berkshire Historical Society, which is housed in Melville’s Arrowhead. He built a summer kitchen in the apple orchard, where they cooked outdoors in hot weather. Or the young Irish women who worked for them would have cooked there. Melville’s family had kitchen maids, says Erin Hunt, curator at the Historical Society and Melville’s historic house at Arrowhead.

She mulled over what they would have cooked when Melville invited Nathaniel Hawthorne to dinner and offered him “an excellent Montado sherry awaiting you, and most potent Port. We will have mulled wine with wisdom and buttered toast with storytelling.”

The Melvilles were not wealthy, Herzberg says, but she and Hunt have found records from Melville’s wife and family of holiday dinners with brandied peaches and homemade ice cream, or spring chicken, squabs, broiled turkey or canvasback duck. Herzberg turned to an account of another dinner, from the August day when Melville climbed Mount Greylock with Sarah Morewood and friends, and she planned their provisions—cold ham and chicken, Jamaican rum, cognac, champagne.

“Mountain-climbing ladies were a rarity in 1850,” Herzberg says, at least in Melville’s circle in the Berkshires. Students from Williams College had built an observatory at the summit, and Melville and his friends camped in its ruins and picnicked under the night sky.




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