Setting the table for a 200-year old dinner takes research and clever re-creation. Antique plates and platters bear historic foods in dining settings that reflect the season and the host. Curator Amanda Keller works with a team from the museums to lay out authentic feasts.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. When you tour historic homes in Colonial Williamsburg, you might notice food set out on dining room tables, but what you might not realize is the level of research, accuracy and specificity that goes into creating these dining scenes. Associate Curator Amanda Keller is our guest today. She’s here to tell us more about how historic tables are set. Amanda, thank you for being here today.
Amanda Keller: Thank you for having me.
Harmony: Well I recently had an education in this myself when I saw you give a talk. When I have walked through these historic homes I’ve noticed food on the table and not understood everything that goes behind the decisions for what food is chosen, how it’s placed, what dishes are set on the table, just the amazing research that goes into creating that scene. Talk to me about what you do and how your work touches that historic food.
Amanda: Really we do everything from the ground up. We select the menu, we select the dishes, we have a whole team that works on this, really. Its not just me, you know, the ceramics curator, the metals curator, textiles curator; we all come together and we actually set down and have a meeting where we plan out each faux dinner in all of the buildings. It’s a long process but one that I’m very glad takes place because we really want the interiors to look as authentic as possible. So to do that, we work with Historic Foodways. We couldn’t do it without them. After we select the dinners we then work with them, sit down and actually select the recipes…
Harmony: So you’re choosing 18th century recipes.
Amanda: Yes. Looking at the different cookbooks that we have in our library here, so we use the Rockefeller Library, which is great. Then we basically just see what they can cook for us and what they’re willing to do. After they actually cook the food, we then have to pick it up, take it back to our department here, freeze it, and then actually make the molds to recreate the plaster faux food that will then be painted and then put on our tables.
Harmony: So the fake food that’s on the table is not ordered from somewhere else,…
Harmony: … it’s actually created here in the museums…
Amanda: Yes, yes.
Harmony: And there’s such a high level of artistry that goes into that.
Amanda: Yes and a lot of people don’t realize that. To make faux food you have to be sort of an artist. You have to be able to paint the food realistically so that it doesn’t look undercooked, overcooked. We actually even make the faux juices that go around the dishes so everything has to be made by our conservation department because they know which materials are safest to use on our antique objects so we really want to make sure that the food isn’t off-gassing or releasing any chemicals that could tarnish the silver, things like that.
Harmony: Because you might be placing a faux roast on top of an actual antique platter?
Amanda: Exactly. And we always use things that will create a barrier so things like clear plastic Mylar we make, we cut out, and then we place underneath the faux food so it never actually touches the antiques.
Harmony: I imagine too that some of the 18th century dishes that are being prepared are very uncommon. You might not be able to even order them from the internet.
Amanda: You can’t. There are a lot of companies that make faux food, but really you have to hire an artist to make the faux food that you would need for an 18th century interior. There are certain people that still, you know, they have their own website and operate their own business doing what we do. But why not do it in house if you can?
Harmony: It sounds like a lot of fun.
Amanda: It’s a lot of fun.
Harmony: So I’m talking to you right now in the winter and so some of the scenes that we’re seeing in houses throughout Colonial Williamsburg are representing the types of meals that would have been eaten in winter and therefore representing the types of crops that would have been available, the slaughters that happened in the fall and in the winter, the types of things that would be available. What are you putting on tables now that talks about the seasonality of Virginia food?
Amanda: Well we don’t put out things like strawberries and things that are only summer, you know, like seasonal fruits that wouldn’t keep well. We put out a lot of dried fruits, things that would have been dehydrated and actually saved throughout the, you know, from the summer on. Lots of meat that would have been slaughtered, you know, right then and there. Things that could be prepared year round or could have been kept in preserves and then actually used to kind flavor things like jellies or syllabub, things like that.
Harmony: And you’re working from cookbook menus that were specific to winter?
Amanda: Yes. A lot of our 18th-century cookbooks actually include meal plans for different seasons so that it will say “spring” and then actually give you a menu for that which is really neat. So I can go back and look at all the December menus and all the different winter ones.
Harmony: And then I guess as you go from house to house through the Historic Area you’re able to set the table for a middling family all the way up to the Governor’s Palace which would be the most opulent. What are the differences in a more middle class family household table versus, say, the Governor’s Palace or the Peyton Randolph House, a very prominent and wealthy Williamsburg resident?
Amanda: When you look at our homes throughout the Historic Area, we have a lot of very well-off people living here that we show and then we have slaves, so we like to show that differentiation there. We don’t really have a lot of middling table settings that we do except for maybe at the Wetherburn’s Tavern would be a good example of that. We try to show food that could have been made at the ready, you know, people traveling would have been able to get something quickly. So we show that there.
But most of our homes, especially during the winter, during the season, like the Everard House is even, I mean that’s our smallest house that we show food, but it’s still very nice stuff. He was very prominent in the community, he would have had a lot of money, would have had the tablewares necessary to entertain lots of friends. So we definitely still show a very nice…it’s just on a smaller scale I guess. He wouldn’t be able to entertain, you know, 50 friends in that small house.
But at the Governor’s Palace, we really have free rein to do whatever we want there. The governor had everything in his inventory that he could need to entertain lavishly so we could really go crazy there. In the slave quarters we tend, you know, slaves usually lived in outbuildings like laundries and, you know, above the kitchens, things like that so those sites we tend to just kind of show plates of hominy and those types of meals that could have been sort of one pot meals that would have been, you know, cooked in the kitchen throughout the day; so nothing too lavish there.
Harmony: We’ve talked a lot about food, but you mentioned as we began talking that you work with all types of curators to help set the table: the plates that you use, the silver that you use. What kinds of things are on the table, you know, that you would eat off of? How do you choose them? How do you know that they’re authentic?
Amanda: I think that just knowing that those tablewares existed, you know, that they’re here in our collection show how prominent they were in the 18th century. They were, you know, sold, we have trade cards that actually picture some of these aperns, these real big silver center pieces, glass pyramids, things like that. During the winter season, we really like to bring out those types of wares to really kind of impress everybody.
Every house kind of has its own kit, we like to say. Because most of the houses are furnished with a probate inventory, we know exactly what each owner had in their home. So like with Peyton Randolph he dies in 1776. It’s like a snapshot in time. We know exactly what he had, you know, in his house so we can actually look at the dining room bowfat and we know exactly what was there. We know how much silver he owned, we know exactly which glass wares he owned, down to his plates so it’s really helpful.
Harmony: So when you walk through a dining room you’re seeing a whole, as you said, a snapshot.
Harmony: So many different types of information. One of the things that I really love that you do with some of these scenes that you set is that you sort of suggest the presence of people who might not be there. How do you use these kind of props or objects to describe the life of the home even when there might not be people in it?
Amanda: That’s a big challenge actually for what we do as interiors curators. We really want the rooms to look lived in. We want people to feel that an 18th century person had just walked out. It’s a hard thing to do. We use lots of different props. For dining rooms and things we like to use napkins to kind of show as if the diners had just gotten up and went into another room like to play cards or enjoy some kind of socializing event afterwards, but it’s hard to do that.
We like to show, at least with the Palace for example, we wanted to show the servants setting up for the ball. So we didn’t want to put out a card game already in process. We wanted to, you know, kind of show the card table being pulled out, chairs kind of being rearranged, candlesticks that were just brought in to be polished and then to, you know, kind of put stacks of cards everywhere.
I would say in other spaces like the supper room we just kind of put out stacks of plates as if the tables had just been put together, leaves up, the tablecloth had just been put on and there are all these stacks of plates, glasses to the side as if they’re about to be placed onto the table, just a big knife tray full of flatware that hadn’t been set out yet. So we’re trying to show rooms in transition I guess.
Harmony: There are a lot of minds and a lot of work behind these table settings. What do you and your team hope that people will take away from one of these little vignettes? What do you hope people might understand a little bit more about the life of Williamsburg residents?
Amanda: I guess that is our goal. To make sure that people leave Williamsburg thinking, you know, this is how people lived in the 18th century. Especially with the food I think people tend to be curious about it. When they see a faux boar’s head sitting on a major huge platter in the center of a table, you always hear people say, “Did people really eat that, is that really something Peyton Randolph would have eaten?” But what they don’t know is that it was this huge delicacy in the time. It was something that was a luxury to be able to eat, you know, like a calf’s head or something like that. To us it seems strange, but in the 18th century it wasn’t strange at all.
So I really hope that people, you know, enjoy the interiors and look at how differently they decorated then, the colors, you know, getting to see how people would eat. It was so much more formal than than it is today. So I guess that is what our main goal is, to kind of better understand, you know, what interiors would have looked like, how people lived and that they leave thinking, you know, all of our houses are very authentic. That’s what I would love to have them leave thinking.
Harmony: Amanda, thank you so much for being our guest today. It’s been our pleasure to have you.
Amanda: Thank you.