• Uncategorized

    A chocolate experience

    I went to a historical program this week, but it was much better than Diane’s and also appropriate to Amanda’s on Valentine’s Day (and Carolyn, sigh. Carolyn, do try and get your mind out of the gutter). I’ve finished my chocolate–I ate half of them at five minutes after midnight and the other half that evening of the 14th and here’s the evidence.

    But I digress. I went to a chocolate program at Riversdale House Museum and although I was volunteering I didn’t spill anything on anyone and I managed to eat a fair amount too. There were some awesome chocolate fans there who ate their way through four centuries of chocolate and probably would have been good for more.

    You can find the recipes at Cooking Up the Past, the FB page that Riversdale’s Food Historian runs, and which has some great stuff on it.

    So, chocolate. First it starts off as a tree with a fruit, with seeds (pods), from which you extract the nibs (the things that look as if a mouse has visited). It’s a very labor intensive product and you can see a video made by the foodways historian at Williamsburg on a site devoted to the history of chocolate in North America, American Heritage Chocolate. There are some more recipes and also products if you wish to try some authentic cookery.

    Chocolate is NOT sweet. You have to add sugar and I found that the historic recipes had a bitter kick to them rather like coffee–cacoa does have a high caffeine content. This is why chocolate was a popular breakfast drink–we used a latte machine to froth up spiced and (slightly) sweetened chocolate in hot water and added in milk to taste just as you would with coffee. This 1731 chocolate pie, one of the delicacies served at the chocolate event was deliciously bitter.

    Into the nineteenth century, things got sweeter. Here’s a whole plateful of chocolatey thrills, including ice cream, a layer cake with chocolate icing, chocolate pudding, a heart-shaped cocoa biscuit, a cake with chocolate icing and some chocolate candy.

    We went into the twentieth century with tollhouse cookies, and into the twenty-first with white chocolate and chocolate flavored with chili. Yum. Then we kitchen staff did the dishes. If you’re anywhere near the Washington, DC area, check out the schedule of events at Riversdale: there’s a complete weekend of women’s activities on May 5-6, The 1812 Woman, one of the many events commemorating the war of 1812.

    So let’s talk about chocolate!

    And go visit The Bookish Dame who’s given Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion a great review today and is giving away a copy!

  • Uncategorized

    Dancing and fine feathers

    I attended a Twelfth Night Ball last weekend (a bit late, but who among us really tracks these things?) at Riversdale House Museum. It was fab, I wore my new feathers, and after talking to fellow guests my ladies maid (husband) and I retired to insert my feathers to their upright position. The secret? When you twist your scarf into a turban, you pin in your feathers and use the twist to hold it into place. It will remain upright for some time even after vigorous dancing. If your feathers remain erect for more than four hours, you must seek immediate medical help…

    And here’s a video of how to twist a scarf into a turban. And doesn’t this lady in the center, who used this technique, look great?

    The ball was a lot of fun with dancing and supper. One interesting thing was that at the beginning we seemed to have more men than women and then toward the end many of the men mysteriously disappeared and so we actually had a distaff set for one of the later dances. In Regency/Federal times they would have retired to drink and smoke, but since this is a fragile historical building, this was not an option. I think they went for a quiet sit down, exhausted by female energy.

    Here we are dancing in a room that was originally the house’s stables and carriage house. It’s actually the west wing of the house and went through various incarnations over the past two hundred years and the walls are hung with copies of portraits of the Lords Baltimore, the founders of Maryland (like no one ever lived here before?). The first owner of the house, Rosalie Calvert, married into the family, although she was a Belgian with sophisticated European tastes who had fled to the New World to escape Napoleon.

    If you’re in the Washington DC area you must visit Riversdale. Come this Sunday and you’ll meet me–I volunteer as a docent. Coming up on February 11, we have a program on chocolate, Tasting the Past: A Chocolate Sampler, which explores the history of chocolate in America. I definitely plan to attend that one! For a full schedule of events throughout the year, go here.

    Other news I have to share today include our own Risky Elena guestblogging at Writer Unboxed on her successful comeback in the age of digital publishing. Go Elena! And you go on over there and say hi!

    I linked earlier in the post to turban-tying instructions at American Duchess. This is a wonderful site, with lots of how-to stuff, solid historical research, and a source for historical footwear. If you love Downton Abbey (and who doesn’t, with the exception of me) you have surely noticed the clothes. Even I like the clothes. This is her latest offering, these glorious Astoria shoes from that period. The way it works is that the Duchess must receive pre-orders to go into production and if you put in an order early (now) you’ll receive a discount. Yum.

    One of the other reasons this period is so popular right now, other than PBS, is that this April is the 100th anniversary of the Titanic and there’s a lot of historical reenactment connected with it. It’s also the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812, something Riversdale is involved in since the inglorious Battle of Bladensburg took place very near the house, followed by the sacking of Washington. Are you taking part in any events or planning to attend as an observer?

  • Jane Austen

    Housewifery skills at Riversdale

    Last Saturday I attended an event at Riversdale House Museum, Maryland, where historians taught us the skills of the Georgian-Federal era housekeeper. Kate Dolan, who was our guest last Thursday, was also there–here she is with an apron full of herbs.

    The house boasts a beautiful garden where herbs, flowers, and vegetables are grown, often sharing the same space, and most of my pics were of the garden. If you’d like to see some really good photos of the costumed participants, go here.

    After a short presentation on herbs we gathered them to make our own herb vinegars in the kitchen of the dependency (behind Kate)–it’s a mid nineteenth century building outside the house which is now used for open hearth cooking demonstrations.

    We had a delicious lunch we prepared that featured produce from the garden, using some American eighteenth century recipes and a couple from Mrs. Beeton. Joyce White, the Foodways expert on staff at Riversdale, emphasized the importance of setting the table correctly and making sure that each dish (served a la francaise) was beautiful in appearance, garnished with flowers, herbs, and asparagus fronds from the garden.

    Here are some pics of the garden. The right one shows the house and the monster asparagus plants on the right.

    In addition we experimented with authentic cleaning substances and techniques for brass and mahogany–guess what, they worked!

    We were very lucky to have Katy Cannon, an expert in historical cosmetics giving a demonstration. Check out her website at AgelessArtifice.com. She burned some pastills for us, which were thought to perfume the air and therefore prevent infections, and we learned that our ancestors enjoyed making pastills embedded with gunpowder for innocent fun in the parlor. I bought some of her products, and here is my loot from the event:

    From left to right:
    Cologne
    A Ball to take out Stains (and it does. In use. It’s soap, lemon, and alum.)
    Bags for preffe or clothes, that no Moth may breed therein. Snappy name! From a 1653 recipe, juniper wood, cloves, rosemary, wormwood. It smells delicious!
    My very own rosemary and thyme vinegar.
    In front, it looks like jam but it’s mahogany polish.

    Tell us if you’ve tried any historic recipes or cleaning methods. Did they work?

    Also if you’re in the greater Washington DC area, please come to Riversdale’s Battle of Bladensburg Encampment on August 13. It’s free, with house tours, kids’ activities, food, music, uniformed historical reenactors, and loud explosions. More details here.

    And in the Blatant Self Promotion department, here are two places where you can comment to enter a contest for a copy of my erotic contemporary TELL ME MORE: Snap, Crackle, and Popping Blog and Write About.

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