Friday, August 23, 2013

Touching the Past

by Sheila Connolly

A few weeks ago I bought a huge lot of antique cookware at a local auction.  When I walked into the preview, I saw the table full of implements, some familiar, some still unexplained, and I said, "I want that." I bid and I won, and I've been working my way through them ever since.

The biggest surprise has been the dozen or so choppers.  Today those of us who cook at home use knives almost exclusively.  Even forty-odd years ago, through today, chefs such as Julia Child have been instructing us on proper knife handling.  Just watch Iron Chef sometime.  I admit that, done well, that style of chopping is fast and efficient.  But what happened to the old ways?

My chopper collection presumes the use of a wooden bowl (how handy I got one of those at the auction too).  The curve of the choppers (all different, but all somewhat curved) fits nicely with the curve of the bowl; the wood helps hold the material to be chopped so it doesn't slide out of the way.  It's a peculiarly satisfying was to chop (once you've found your favorite chopper, and believe me, they all feel different). And one source I read said that women used to sit cradling the bowl on their lap while they chopped—given the size of my bowl, I can believe it.

But I think there is more to cooking implements than fads or fashions.  I think it's safe to say that home cooks (or their "help") no longer cook the way they did in 1900. 

In the Orchard Mysteries, I write about a colonial house in western Massachusetts, and the historical society in the real town owns a series of diaries written by the woman of the house, Olive Barton Warner (to whom I'm related through the Barton family), starting in 1880.  I have transcriptions of the first two, and they make fascinating reading because they capture the nature of farm life in the day.  Olive simply reports what she did from day to day, both chore and socializing.  Hers was a small family:  husband Eugene, and two daughters, Lula and Nettie.  Olive was forty when she started the series in 1880, and her daughters were young teenagers, still in school.  Eugene handled all the outside work; the women took care of the house. It's not clear whether they had any additional farm help—no one is ever mentioned—but there is a lot of sharing of work among neighbors.

What is relevant here is what Olive writes about cooking.  Just a few examples:

(January 13, 1880) I baked thirteen pies 7 pumpkin, 6 apple, made a quart apple sauce.  Eugene peared (sic) all my apples.

(February 13) I baked bread, and fourteen pies apple five, pumpkin five, & four mince. 

(February 26) Baked 13 pies, mince apple & pumpkin.  My last pumpkin.

(March 20) I and girls baked 6 pies, some bread, and two kinds of cake. 

This is just a random sample. Nowhere does Olive mention selling or giving away any of her baked goods (although she does talk about Eugene going into town to sell apples or potatoes), so I have to assume that these quantities were for household consumption.  I don't know how long any of these would keep, without refrigeration.  I did peek ahead, and she's still baking come summer. (And I couldn't resist sharing this note:  on May 10th she and Eugene "took off their flannels".)

My point is, back in the day cooking involved a lot of chopping (I'm assuming some of the choppers, particularly the two-bladed ones, would have been used to "cut in" pastry for all those pie crusts). No fast foods, no short-cuts: it was all done by hand. I don't even want to think about how you cooked all those pies and bread in an oven back then, particularly in summer (early in the day, I presume!).

But what is so wonderful is that holding and using these implements puts me back in that time, and I can picture Olive and her girls busy in the kitchen (which I've seen more than once), and now I know how they did it.  To my mind, this is the best kind of research—the details that make things real.

And I think I'm going to keep using some of the choppers—they work really well.

Coming October 1

1 comment:

Jerry House said...

That photo, Sheila, looks amazingly like the Eastern Massachusetts house I grew up in.