Friday, October 11, 2013

Room for Something New

by Sheila Connolly

Last week I wrote about the obsolescence of things learned in the past. Now I want to look at learning new things.

There seems to be some scientific consensus that exercising one’s brain will keep it healthy and nimble.  I’ll vote for that (note that writing is the most recent of a long line of careers for me).  In addition, I’m interested in learning about skills that people don’t do anymore, because I find myself writing about the past, even though my books are set in the present.

Last weekend I went to Old Sturbridge Village for their annual Apple Days celebration (which of course I consider research for my Orchard Mysteries).  They have a nice collection of heirloom trees there, all untouched by chemicals, and they offer (among many things) a tasting each year, which is fun since most people don’t know these older trees exist, much less have a chance to try them.  I was pleased that I actually have some of the ones they shared this year, and I was so enamored of one variety (“Mother”) that I ordered one, that will arrive in the spring. That makes it my ninth apple tree (I have a very small orchard).

I did pass up the cider molasses making demonstration, because it promised to be a long slow process: build fire, hang cauldron of fresh apple juice over it, boil until thick, skimming off whatever crud floats to the toop.  End of recipe.

However, I was excited to learn how one shoots a musket (ca. 1816), which is useful information.  It involves measuring black powder (which looks more like small gravel than powder) into the barrel, stuffing down a wad of cloth to keep it there and contain the charge for just a bit (if you’re really shooting, you’d put a lead ball in next), then adding a dash of powder to the “pan,” then sharpening your flint so it will produce a spark, and finally you get to shoulder the thing and fire.  It’s very loud.  The process gave me a whole new appreciation of warfare, when each combatant had to go through this laborious process just to shoot a single bullet. (And also deal with misfires and erratic shots that go astray, no matter how good a marksman you were.)

And then I went on to the communal cider making display.  Actually that’s a misnomer:  it was an apple grinding event, powered by an ox, that created the mush that would then be placed between layers of rye grass in a giant press and squished to force out the juice, which was then transferred into barrels to ferment.  At that point the description gets even lovelier:  the biological detritus (like a few mouse carcasses, dead insects, leaves, stems and twigs) gets blown out the top bung-hole by the fermentation process, while the “lees” sink to the bottom of the barrel.  If you want to decant the drinkable part, take it from the middle! 

I learned that cider making really was a communal effort.  One entrepreneur owned the grinder and the press, and the good citizens would bring their apples (and their ox or horse for power) for processing; they would then pay the owner in barrels of cider.

After that I was fascinated to listen to a reenactor describe how to bake in a brick oven (build large fire early in the day, to heat the bricks, then remove the fire, shut the flue, and start adding what you want baked—the stuff that takes longest goes in first, toward the back, and you keep adding more items through the day).  The way to test the heat is to stick your hand in and see how long you can stand it:  10-12 seconds means it’s about 450 degrees. Anybody want to go back to the good old days?

I’ve been visiting OSV since I was a teenager.  I’m not sure what impression it made on me then, but it was enough to keep me coming back over the years, and I introduced my daughter to the place when she was just about the same age I was when I first saw it.  I don’t expect anyone to hand me a musket and tell me to shoot someone (or something), nor am I going to haul bushels of apples to a shared press.  But knowing how these things were done gives me a better understanding of life in earlier centuries. It’s a wonder anybody won a war, when the weaponry was so erratic and slow.  It’s a wonder anyone managed to cook anything (particularly in the summer, when the kitchen must have been blazing hot, not to mention infested with flies, attracted by the livestock just outside the door).  But wars were fought and people ate, so I guess it all worked out.

I love research. And to think I call this work! 


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