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It was 25 years ago this month (most likely April 3, to be exact),
that I started working at what was then known as Conner Prairie
Living History Museum (CP) in my home state of Indiana.

Image (39)

Readers may recall that I’ve written previously about my
many adventures while employed
at Conner Prairie. It was
the birthplace of my passion for historic cooking. Even now,
I acknowledge that fact and am deeply grateful for the solid
foundation, both in general history and in historic foodways,
that was established there. Overall, my experience at Conner
Prairie was wonderful, and my years serving as an Interpreter
were some of the happiest, most glorious, of my life.

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One of my stints as a cover girl while at CP!

Image (38)

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However, sadly all is not well back there on the Prairie. At least,
in my view. The past that I knew, that I happily “lived,” shared
with, and interpreted for, thousands upon thousands of visitors
on a daily basis, is, sadly, no more. I say this based on what
I personally have seen and heard, as well as on what I’ve been
told by current employees and by fellow CP alums. The museum’s
emphasis now seems to be more on having a good time, rather
than on learning about the past. What daily transpires is more
“let’s have fun via interactive activities” and less “here’s how
inhabitants of this area and during this time (that’d be the year
1836, in central Indiana) lived, worked, and played.” In fact,
the institution’s very name has been changed to reflect this
new direction. No longer called a living history museum, it’s
now some type of fun-land, namely “Conner Prairie Interactive
Historic Park.” Even the site’s current slogan has veered
away from any semblance of history, living or otherwise,
with its bold proclamation of “Acres and Acres of Interactive
Awesomeness.” ugh. There’s a heavy sense of dread in my
very heart and soul. It feels as if a dear friend from long
ago has passed.

This new angle on daily operations at CP really hit home this
past summer when I was told of a blog written by a Danish
fellow* who was traveling around the United States with his
family, visiting different historical museums. One of his goals
was to determine which institutions offered the best interactive
experiences (yes, apparently that’s a vital criteria nowadays!).
The family went to several sites, including the Frontier Culture
Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Henry Ford Museum.
Second on their itinerary was my once-beloved Conner Prairie.
I was eager to read what they thought.

Then, I saw this blog photo:

(c) 2015 Martins Museum Blog

(c) 2015 Martins Museum Blog

My heart sank. Seriously?!? I was simply dumbfounded…shocked…
dismayed…disappointed. Even angered. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Why? Because below is the scene that used to greet visitors when
they walked into the kitchen of this same house:

Dr Campbell kitchen at CP c 1991

You saw a person (usually female, and in this particular case me,
but it could’ve been someone else portraying the same, or a similar,
character) DOING various kitchen-appropriate (wow, it’s a separate
room!) activities. She might be preparing a meal and cooking all or
parts of it on the cast iron cook-stove (oh, my! it’s the ONLY one
in town!) or “dressing” the good-sized table in the adjacent dining
room (again, wow, it’s separate!) with a cloth, napkins, plates,
and other assorted accoutrements or even beginning the process
of serving the folks seated therein. Or, if the meal had ended,
she might be clearing the table and washing-up all the dishes and
pots ‘n pans and putting them away in their proper spots. Naturally,
during all this, I would’ve, er, I mean, she would’ve explained each
step. Perhaps she’d start with the cook-stove, and how difficult it is
to keep it huffin’ ‘n puffin’ all day long and the challenges she faced
learning to cook on it, since, as with most females in this or any town,
she only knows how to cook on the open hearth. Then there’s
the incessant struggle to maintain a supply of stove firewood,
and the constant reminders she has to give the Doctor’s young
apprentice (or perhaps that fellow whose Contract for the Poor
Dr. Campbell holds) to chop it and fill the wood box. And then
all the times such help is non-existent, like the other day when
the Doctor and his assistant were out tending to patients, and
so she had to handle it herself. Of course, hopefully the gal
visitors encountered in this kitchen would talk non-stop (well,
I certainly did!) about the whys and wherefores of all that she

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Me, not at the Doctor’s grand house, but at the potters’ plain ‘n rugged
one-room cabin at the edge of town, down toward the river:

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was doing. Whether it was the sources of the foods that were
prepared (patients, as payment for the Doctor’s services) or
the reason for the separate rooms in the Campbell house just
for cooking, eating, and even sleeping (there were FIVE rooms!
most houses in town only had one or two) or what she really
thought of that handsome new schoolmaster, I’d, er, sorry,
I mean she, would gladly tell all. Then she’d likely yammer on
about herself and her family, her sister and two brothers, how
long she’d been the Campbell’s “hired girl,” what her duties
and chores are, and perhaps whether or not the Doctor is
a good and kind employer and how special her relationship
is with his wife, who’s teaching her about all the finer things
in life. She’s well aware that she works long hours, but she’s
mighty grateful to be able to contribute to her whole family’s
living expenses (particularly since her father passed not long
ago). And so on and so forth, ’til the day comes to an end.
Of course, the beauty and the value of it all is that, once
visitors left this kitchen and house, they could then compare
what they saw here with what they’d seen, or were going
to see, in all the other houses throughout Prairietown.

The bottom line is, visitors would’ve been able to LEARN SO
MUCH
about SO MANY things when they entered this kitchen
of Dr. Campbell’s house and chatted with the person they met
there. Through interaction with a real human being, the public
was informed, educated, and entertained. In short, it was fun!
But now, instead of an actual person showing and teaching
visitors by doing, explaining as she goes, and sharing oodles
of information, and answering your questions, both big and
small, and conducting a lively conversation, they get this:

(c) 2015 Martins Museum Blog

(c) 2015 Martins Museum Blog

Yep, a wall placard telling everyone how to “prepare and cook”
their own meal, complete with plastic food. What a deal!

So, I ask you, is this BETTER?!? I say no, but hey, that’s just
me and my opinion.

What’s interesting is that, apparently, Colonial Williamsburg has
now set its compass in the same direction. Some folks are all
for it, others are not. Personally, I have a problem with this
seemingly rampant “enh, it’s good enough” attitude. I mean,
come on! Showcasing the pirate Blackbird, who not only was
never in the town of Williamsburg, but was also killed in 1718,
long before the site’s primary time period?! And I was shocked
to read the new president’s comment, “The Blackbeard story
was fun, it was accurate-ish.” (emphasis mine)

Seriously?!?

Alas, maybe that’s what’s important nowadays. Fun. As opposed
to, say, acknowledging our historic past. And doing it accurately.
As opposed to “accurate-ish”-ly. Whatever. As far as I can tell,
it seems like it’s the ol’ Disney-fication effect, the one that
people feared was engulfing Conner Prairie years ago.

Of course, nothing’s more constant than change. The Conner
Prairie that I knew and visited when in grade school was vastly
different from what it had become by the time I was employed
as an Interpreter. For starters, back in those very early days,
it was called Conner Prairie Pioneer Settlement and Museum.
Then decades later, due to major shifts in the surrounding
population, even the site’s address changed, from Noblesville
to Fishers (which kinda made the reason for naming the onsite
eatery after Governor Noble rather nonsensical). Later on, when
working for the City of Indianapolis’ Parks Department, I attended
meetings at CP that were conducted in a renovated barn, before
the modern Visitor Center was built. And heck, I can remember
a time when the first-person village of Prairietown didn’t exist!

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There have been other changes since my years at CP, many
of which seem inexplicable to me. Or maybe it’s just that
the site’s focus drifted more to offering what the public
expects, rather than on what’s historically correct. This,
from an institution that, at least when I was there, strived
for historical accuracy at all times and demanded the same
of its interpreters. In any event, there were things such as
the addition of a church (after all, every town had one, yes?
No! Not those in Indiana with a population under 200; besides,
not everyone was of the same religion, if any). Then the village
potters’ surname was changed from “Baker” to “Barker,” because,
you know, too many visitors were confused as to whether pots
or bread was baked in the kiln (despite the fact that the name
Baker was set when Prairietown was conceived, and it was
the actual name of an actual, real-life early 1800s Indiana
potter). Of course, I think the nail in the coffin was hammered
tight when the potters’ house was demolished (they now “live”
outside of town, just as most everyone else does) and their
shop moved up into town (makes for a nice little industrial
district, doesn’t it?!).

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And don’t get me started on the $450 million Civil War exhibit!
(I might tell you what I really think! LOL oy) Whatever. I could
continue, but I won’t. Besides, it’s too painful! Nevertheless,
in the end, it seems that history is being, and has been, slowly
but surely, dumped by the wayside. ‘Cuz, you know, it’s allegedly
“not fun.” And that worries, even saddens, me.

In the end, I suppose the proof of any benefits, or lack thereof,
arising from all this mucking about will come decades from now,
when the general consensus is that citizens of the United States
are either more or less informed about the overall history of their
country, as well as that of their collective past, of themselves as
a people. I’m guessing it’ll be, perhaps, the latter, since it isn’t
particularly good now, but, again, that’s just me. It remains
to be seen.

In the meantime, I commemorate this 25th anniversary by bidding
a hearty farewell to a treasured past and moving forward with heaps
of fond memories. HUZZAH!

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*NOTE: Naturally, the blog is in Danish.
To translate it, use
Google Translate. You’ll get
a version that’s understandable, albeit not perfect.
Copy the URL of the blog post and paste it into
the box on the left side of the Google Translate
page. Make sure you’re translating from Danish
to English, using the “Detect Language” function
on the left of the page, above the box. The URL
of the translated page will pop up on the right.
Then click the blue “Translate” box (also on
the right), and the translated web page will
replace the “Translate” page.
Hope that all
makes sense. Good luck!

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Our menu for the most recent hearth cooking class* at The Israel Crane House included “Beef-stake Pie,” “Eggs and Onions, commonly called the Onion Dish,” “Sweet Potato Balls,” “Mrs Perrot’s Heart or Pound Cake,” and a simple beverage of “Chocolate.” We had a great group of folks participating, and it was a beehive of constant activity as everyone busily worked on one dish and/or another. Clearly, all had a marvelous time! HUZZAH! Of course, as usual, I was only able to snag one or two pictures. Luckily, however, several people came with cameras in hand, resulting in some really lovely photos. And so, with her permission, I share those taken by Andrea Swenson. CLICK HERE to see them. Several are simply stunning! HUZZAH!

IMG_1815

* This, the second class of 2014, was held Sunday, March 2.

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To continue with our open hearth vs cast iron cook stove
thread, here are the second set of the 12 reasons I think
the hearth is the best option. Not to mention, it’s my
personal preference, as well. HUZZAH!

The other reasons I think a hearth is better are:

7.) See the reflector oven below? Well, if you traded your
open hearth for one of them fancy cast iron cook stoves,
you can kiss it goodbye. In fact, you can say farewell

to the roasting of any and all meats entirely. Sure,
you can put it in the stove’s oven, but that merely
BAKES it. Dries it out. Yes, eventually various stove
models were developed to accommodate similar tin
ovens, but who wants to wait ’til then to enjoy a bit
o’ juicy ‘n delicious roast beef?! Or a pair of roasted
squab? (Not to mention, will you be able to afford
yet another new stove?! And then learn its quirks?!)

8.) The issue of, oddly enough, safety. With an open
hearth, you SEE the fire. It’s right there. It’s huge. It’s
blazing. You SEE the piles of hot coals and/or the pots
set on them, and thus you know where NOT to walk.
Acquire a cook stove, and although it’s contained in
that little box, you can’t SEE the fire. You can’t always
tell if it’s on or not (hmmm, sounds like those modern
ceramic tops!). Sure, it looks harmless, but lay something
on top or lean against it absentmindedly and…yowza!

9.) Pesky installation issues: You couldn’t just visit your
local mercantile, buy a cook stove, bring it home, put it
in your kitchen, and start it up. No. Your new cast iron
monster requires a chimney, just as your fireplace did.
But you can’t just set it in the fireplace and be done
with it. No, again! You’d also have to buy and install
miles and miles and MILES of stove pipe, which’d have
to go from the stove over to and up your pre-existing
fireplace chimney; OR over and into the wall above it,
then up that same chimney; OR into that wall, up and
out an additional flue that you’ve hollowed out of, well,
um, somewhere! Nevertheless, hope you’re good with
carpentry and masonry. And engineering. And…. Oh,
by the way, when a cook stove was installed, more
than likely, your fireplace was rendered inoperable.
Sorry ’bout that!

10.) I’ve heard MANY times that a “benefit” of having
a stove is that the menfolk of a household no longer
needed to hang around as much. You see, supposedly,
less chopped ‘n split firewood is required for a stove
as for a fireplace. HA! Let’s just put an end to that
myth right now! Not only were the men (and anyone
handy with an ax) needed, they were needed MORE.
The reason is simple: pretty much any size log could
be burned in a fireplace (even those massive holiday
“Yule Logs”), but that is NOT the case with a cast iron

cook stove. In fact, the wood has to be chopped up
and split into smaller pieces, so it’ll fit into a stove’s
enclosed, limited-space firebox. Of course, the size
of individual pieces depended somewhat on your
stove’s specific dimensions, just as it did with the
size of your hearth, but overall, no matter how big
or small it was, any and all firewood had to be cut
to fit.

A perfect example of using firewood that was not
the best size could be seen awhile back on the PBS
documentary wherein the staff of Cooks Illustrated
re-created an entire meal using adapted receipts
from Fanny Farmer’s cookbook.* I had to chuckle
repeatedly as the cooks struggled with the fire
in the cook stove. They kept trying to stuff full-
sized-but-split logs into its firebox! Your pieces
were too big, people! Of course, using such big
chunks of wood seriously affected the cooks’
ability to regulate the flames and therefore, the
cooking temperatures. Ahh, if only they’d used
smaller, more appropriately-sized pieces! I doubt,
however, that anyone involved with the production
had bothered to hone his or her wood chopping
and splitting skills. Oh well….

11.) In conjunction with this provision that the wood
used in a cast iron cook stove must be smaller than
that for a fireplace: it also means the wood’s gonna
burn faster, and so it has to be replaced more often.
You’re constantly having to feed the fire. Which takes
time away from any cooking. If you wait too long to
add more wood, or just haven’t gotten to it, and then,
oh dear, your fire goes out…! Ahh well, maybe your
family and guests weren’t all that hungry, anyway?!

Let’s pause here briefly, and take a look at what
the author of The Housekeeper’s Book (1837) says
about these very issues:

…I am sure it is not possible [sic]
to have cooking in perfection,
without a proper degree of heat,
and, as far as my observation
has gone, meat cannot be well
roasted unless it be before
a good fire.

She then continues:

A cook has many trials of her
temper, but none so difficult
to bear as the annoyance
of a bad fire; for with a bad
fire she is never able to cook
her dinner well, however much
she may fret herself in the endeavour;

12.) The home fire: as many commentators of the 1800s
lamented, say, “So long” to family values when you
trade your open hearth for a cook stove. Yep, there’ll
be no more gathering of family and friends ’round
the hearth. No more sittin’ before a blazing fire,
with folks telling stories, pluckin’ tunes on a fiddle,
daughters practicing their sewing, and sons their
newly-acquired whittling skills. Yep, just whisper,
“It’s been nice knowing you” to that welcoming
ambiance of a roaring fire, with its flickering flames
dancing on the floor and walls. Yes, indeedie, it’s
all about to disappear (and did). Unfortunately,
snuggling up to a hot coal-black metal box just
wasn’t the same as gatherin’ round the hearth.
Alas, it was the end of the world as the common
woman (and man) of the 19th century had known it.

Finally, here’s another passage I found that comments
on a later “past vs the future” debate. It’s from Coon
Tree
, by E.B. White (1956!). Compare his comments
on the “progress” of his time with that in the piece
I shared above. Clearly, the more things change,
the more they remain the same:

We have two stoves in our kitchen
here in Maine—a big black iron stove
that burns wood and a small white
electric stove that draws its strength
from the Bangor Hydro-Electric Company.
We use both. One represents the past,
the other represents the future. If we
had to give up one in favor of the other
and cook on just one stove, there isn’t
the slightest question in anybody’s mind
in my household which is the one we’d
keep. It would be the big black Home
Crawford 8-20, made by Walker & Pratt,
with its woodbox that has to be filled
with wood, its water tank that has to
be replenished with water, its ashpan
that has to be emptied of ashes, its
flue pipe that has to be renewed when
it gets rusty, its grates that need freeing
when they get clogged, and all its other
foibles and deficiencies. We would choose
this stove because of the quality of its
heat, the scope of its talents, the warmth
of its nature (the place where you dry
the sneakers, the place where the small
dog crawls underneath to take the chill
off, the companionable sound it gives
forth on cool nights in fall and on zero
mornings in winter). The electric stove
is useful in its own way, and makes a
good complementary unit, but it is as
cold and aseptic as a doctor’s examining
table, and I can’t imagine our kitchen
if it were the core of our activity.

There you have it. If I lived back in say, 1836, I’d definitely
prefer an open hearth over a cast iron cook stove. But what
about you? Which would YOU choose? And why?

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*Fannie Farmer revised and published The Boston Cooking
School Cookbook
in 1896.

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UPDATE: Summer 2014
Well, there’s nothing more constant than change, ay?! This video
series is always being moved. dagnabit

In any case, the previously-shared links no longer work. Even
what’s in the box, below, is just a quick succession of several
different sections. So, try this one HERE. You should be able
to find ALL of the episodes at this one location on youtube.
Ignore the “unavailable” notation. Just click on the videos
in the list on the right-hand side.

It’s a fantastic series. Enjoy!

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I recently re-discovered a fantastic video series that I’d
like to share. Entitled “Tales from the Green Valley,” it
follows five historical experts as they spend 12 months
“living” in the year 1620 on an historical working farm
located along the Welsh borders (so yes, it’s British).
The work they do, the activities in which they engage,
and the challenges they face are all applicable to any
farm in any area during any pre-modern time period.
I hope everyone enjoys them as much as I do.

Comprised of 12 episodes, a playlist of the series exists
on youtbube, wherein one is shown right after another.
Believe me, this feature makes it much easier to view
each episode, rather than doing each one separately
and trying to figure out if E2P1-3 comes before or after
E1P2-5. Now, it will seem as if there are more than 12,
and there sorta are, because the playlist shows the
series in only 15 minute increments. It just means you
can watch as much or as little as you like. In the end,
believe me, it will be well worth it. I guarantee that
you will learn so much, and you’ll gain a very realistic
glimpse into 17th century farm life. HUZZAH!

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I know, I know. Believe me, I KNOW! Nearly two weeks ago,
on New Year’s Day, I wrote:

I promise to get back to writing
here more often!

Yeah, sure, you bet! dagnabit. Guess I should’ve just stuck
with “Happy New Year” and been done with it! Alas, I didn’t.
It’s pretty amazing, though: take some time off from writing,
and suddenly a couple of days becomes several weeks. Like
I said, dagnabit!

So…enough of that. Time to get moving! Okay, think I’ll start
with my historic cooking activities back in December. Naturally,

I was incredibly busy at the hearth of the Israel Crane House.
Two main events were the month’s first Sunday (Dec. 4) and
then the annual two-day Essex County (NJ) Holiday Historical
Houses Tour (Dec. 10 & 11).

First up, that Sunday. Now, if I could remember what I did….
Har! Har! Just kidding. I brewed hot spiced cider, cooked up
apples ‘n sausages, and baked a cornbread. Oh, and I hung
cut squash near the apples (from weeks earlier) on the mantel
to dry AND merrily showed off the pumpkin I’d dried at home.
Visitors were constantly coming and going the entire time, and
I had a blast chatting with them all. HUZZAH!

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Spiced cider set to brew:

Cornbread’s prepped and ready:

It’s a-bakin’ on the hearth:

YUM!

Interestingly, even though my cornbread was quite tasty, and
it disappeared in no time, it also crumbled far too easily. So as
I served pieces to more and more visitors, I wracked my brain,
trying to figure out what’d gone wrong. Why was it so crumbly?
Then suddenly, it hit me! With all the hustle ‘n bustle, mixing up
the batter, talking to this ‘n that person and then another, I’d
completely forgotten to add the egg! Which means there was
nothing to bind it all together. dagnabit. Yep, even I make one
or two goofball mistakes now and then. HUZZAH! Oh, wait, no,
that’s not the word, um…what? Oh, never mind. Onward!

Apples ‘n sausage sizzling while the cornbread bakes:

The above food combination was highly popular during the 18th
and early 19th centuries, and receipts (recipes) for it abound
in cookbooks of those times:

Mmmm, the perfect food for a cold afternoon:

Preserving food for winter, such as hanging squash to dry, was
extremely important in past centuries:

And…TA-DA! My dried pumpkin:

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I apologize for not posting anything lately. I’ve been
SUPER busy. I’ll be heading over to the Israel Crane
House again tomorrow (Saturday, December 10) and
Sunday (December 11). You see, the House is included
on the Essex County Holiday Historical Houses Tour,
and I’ll be cooking at the hearth. There’ll be a wide
array of festive food on display, as well (most all of it
for sharing with visitors, BTW). And that is what I’ve
been doing all week…making this vast assortment
of delectable goodies. Seriously, every day I was
elbows-deep in one dish or another!

Unfortunately, I haven’t time to write; even now,
I’m scurrying to finish things. So you’ll have to wait
for all the details. In the meantime, however, here’s
a photo of one of the dishes I’ve been working on
for this weekend at the Crane House: a lovely
Potato Pumpkin. HUZZAH!

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Eeegad! It’s now been almost two weeks since I last posted
anything here. I am sorry. Life gets in the way, sometimes.
However, I haven’t just been lazyin’ around! I’ve been busy
with assorted hearth cookery tasks. You see, I have not one,
but TWO, cooking gigs this week. One was yesterday (9/22),
as it was Homeschool Day at the Israel Crane House. Then
this coming Saturday (or possibly Sunday, due to the current
steady rain that may last til then), is the annual Apple Festival
at Brooklyn’s Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum. For both I’ve been
doing the usual buying of supplies, the transporting of same
plus equipment, doing pre-event prep (including cooking),
and so forth. Of course, my trusty camera and I documented
much of it with photos. HUZZAH!

So, let’s get started! I think I’ll begin with yesterday’s event
at the Crane House, then I’ll go back to some of the necessary
pre-event prep work. Although, I may throw in pictures from
the Apple Fest in the middle of it all. We’ll see.

Homeschool Day was a huge success. I don’t know the exact
numbers, but based on who joined me in the Crane kitchen,
I’d say they were pretty high. We discussed the foods that
would’ve been eaten not only in general, but also during
a typical Fall. We churned butter, fried up apple fritters,
enjoyed bowls of Hasty Pudding, and more.

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More to come…

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