Apprentice cook Melissa Blank learns her way around a 200-year-old kitchen.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Its Colonial Williamsburg’s tradespeople and interpreters who bring the Historic Area to life. Today we welcome the newest cook to join the ranks of historic foodways, Melissa Blank. Melissa, thank you for being here today.
Melissa Blank: Oh, you’re welcome.
Harmony: So you’re one of our newest cooks to join the historic foodways program. Where are the kitchens where we’re going to find you?
Melissa: We are in the Palace kitchen five days a week and then we are in the Anderson Armory kitchen which is by the Blacksmith’s Shop. We are there four days a week.
Harmony: So what are the kinds of things that you’re going to be doing?
Melissa: As the newest apprentice, I am having to learn the basic skills of what the cooks would do in each of the kitchens. Over the next several years there is a checklist that each year I will learn different techniques of cooking, learning how to interpret the recipes from the 18th century and then over time just be able to advance up to a journeyman.
Harmony: I don’t think we’ve ever talked to anyone who is actually working through their apprenticeship. We talk to a lot of people who are masters of their trade. When you talk about learning certain cooking skills now, this stage you’re in now, what are the skills you’re learning?
Melissa: To start off with some of them I know from just, you know, cooking at home: how to roast something, how to boil something. But it’s very different when you’re doing it on, say, a range where you’re putting coals in versus just turning on the stove. So it’s learning how to use the different tools and doing stuff that you already know. But there are also things that I am not as familiar with.
One of the areas that I said during the first week was, “Ok, I am not sure how to cut up meat with the bones in it.” Which is, you know, we’re so used to nowadays going to the store and you get the cut of meat and they’ve already deboned it. It’s in its own little separate package. Barbara, who is one of my other colleagues, she’s been walking me through “Ok, here are the bones, here is the knife you want to use.” So it’s definitely learning some skills that by this time in my life if I was in the 18th century I would definitely already have mastered.
Harmony: So you’re having to kind of relearn how to do some things you might already have thought you knew how to do.
Harmony: You mention that the heat source is a big difference. What are some of the major differences that you notice as you try to translate what you know from your modern kitchen to working in historic foodways?
Melissa: The big thing is some of the tools that you’re using and a lot of the prep work. It takes a lot longer to get things going versus if you were just to say you want to boil some cabbage. You can just put the water in the pot, turn it on. Where as we have to get there 8:30 in the morning, we’re getting our coals started, we are bringing in new coals so that we have enough for the day, we have to get our water for washing, we have to get our water for using to cook in so we get the buckets out for that.
For example, with our baking of bread, it’s taking us two hours just to preheat our oven. We’re preheating it, then we have to pull the coals out, then it’s too hot to bake in, so then we have to let it cool for an hour, make our rolls into bread, but by the time we’ve put it in the oven it’s actually more efficient than baking bread at home because you have this constant source of heat. So it’s kind of like the little tricks and tools of each trade is part of what I’m learning now. Some of it I have known before. I’ve done foodways back in Missouri where I’m from, but a lot of it is, it’s different because I’m used to the 19th century cooking and that’s very different from 18th century cooking.
Harmony: So when cooking in the 18th century takes all day does that change the way that they eat?
Melissa: Yes. The meals are different so the most common thing we get when people are coming in is, “When’s lunch?” Well, not for 70 years. We have dinner, which is at 2:00, mainly because that’s the hottest point of your day. But that also gives, like at the Palace, it gives you plenty of time to prepare all of those wonderful dishes. So you have dinner at 2:00, you’re going back out to work for as long as the sunlight’s going to allow you to, so supper may not be until 6:00, 7:00, 8:00, maybe later.
Then you go to bed, the next morning breakfast is at the same time, but it’s not what you would think of as breakfast. Â We’re not going to have a bowl of cereal and eggs and bacon, we’re going to have what was left over from the meal the day before. Whatever would keep. So that might be just bread, it might be bread and some fruit, it may be a stew if it was kept on simmering over night.
Harmony: You mention that one of the other things you’re doing in your apprenticeship is mastering interpreting some these 18th century recipes. What are some of the first ones you’re going to learn?
Melissa: The first ones I’ve tried so far, I’ve done an onion pie which is kind of, to me it seems, like a pot pie with vegetables, onions, potatoes, hard boiled eggs, apples. That was a pretty easy recipe to get going, but what was new for me is that at the Palace, which is where we were doing this at, is you had to decorate the top of the pie. So I had some neat little tips shown to me by one of our most experienced cooks, Dennis, where he was showing me “Well, take some egg yolk and that’s going to make it shine, it won’t burn.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s a brilliant idea. I never thought of that.” So it’s really great to be learning from each of these experienced people.
Today I helped one of my other colleagues with a veal cutlet and some stuffing. It was like formed into little balls that were on each side of it so sometimes I’m helping, sometimes I’m doing simple dishes myself. I did some fried potatoes yesterday. But what I discovered is that with these cookbooks, I’m having to relearn how to read recipes. That’s the big difference that I’m not used to is that they don’t list it as what we would think of as a cookbook today. It’s not listed as, “Well, here are your ingredients, here’s step one, here’s step two, here’s step three and then at the bottom here’s how long it’s going to take.
It is more of a stream of consciousness to where they’ll say, “Well, get your potatoes, get your onions, boil them, slice them, oh and add this and well then once you’re done doing this you want to add this at the beginning.” And so what I’ve discovered is, a few of the early recipes I’ve tried like I skipped over boil and went straight to slicing because you’re so used to seeing the order. So it’s definitely, what the trick is is that they assume that you already know how to cook. You’ve been trained from childhood to do these things so all the cookbooks from the 18th century are really just, “Here’s a recipe, here’s the ingredients I used, you know enough to boil them the first time and the temperature, that’s up to you, when it’s done, that’s up to you.” So it’s definitely a challenge now to go back and have to read through it several times and then be able to say, “Ok, what order am I going in, what did they not include?” So really translating it.
Harmony: I think you have a unique perspective on food because before you came to us here in the 18th century, you worked in the 19th century. So I wonder now as you work in the 18th century if you have a different perspective on how food changes and what changes food as we move from the 18th to the 19th century. Are there some things that are easier to get, is there technology that changes what we’re eating?
Melissa: A lot of what I started with in the 19th century you get the Industrial Revolution. That’s the key to what happens in the next 100 years. The industrial revolution improves transportation. That improves how far we can expand as a nation. That means that we have now boxed containers or by the Civil War you can have things delivered all over the continent as far as food goes. So you get new technologies with the cooking tools. By the 1840s or ‘50s, you’re getting the cast iron stoves and so you have everything in a nice little contained box that you can do all of your boiling. You’ve got your stovetop, you’ve got your oven. You can add that to your house now. You don’t have to worry about as much those separate kitchens if we don’t need to unless it’s just hot.
When I first started, I started as an open hearth cook which is Dutch ovens. My first full time interpreter’s job, I went to a kitchen that had a cast iron stove and I thought “Wow, this is going to be so easy now.” But then what I discovered, each different way has its own unique things. The first time I tried to bake something in that oven I realized that if you don’t turn the item you’re going to have very burnt on one side and you’re going to have dough on the other side. So you know, each century has its own uniqueness, but I think what we are more used to in current days what you see developing in the 19th century.
The 18th century you have still a lot of the same techniques that you’ve had for hundreds of years. You do see new inventions and things come along. Like for example if you visit the Palace kitchen you’ll see the clock jack, which is what turns your spit when you’re roasting meat -- what you would think of as a rotisserie. That comes along in the 1300s and we’re still using it here in the 18th century, but once you have the Industrial Revolution come along you see a lot of new changes, new ideas. Some of them work, some of them don’t work.
Harmony: You mentioned boxed foods as one of the modern arrivals on the scene in the 19th century. What are some of the other changes in food that you said are more similar to what we see in our modern kitchens today?
Melissa: Right. With the boxed cereals and things like that you’re getting that way at the tail end of the century so the Victorian era. Along the middle of the century we’re developing, we’re learning more about we need to make sure that we’re boiling things. We know that the germ is discovered, things like that. So you are seeing canning develop, hot water baths for preserving your food so, you’re getting techniques and ways to preserve your food longer. You see the icebox developed. Now it’s not what we think of as a freezer, but it’s on that road. So really probably the number one thing is preservation, that you can get your food to last longer, it can travel, and more variety. So it frees us up from the kitchen to do other things, whether that’s working outside on the farm, whether that’s raising the children, whether that’s working in a factory. You can really look at a lot of the name brands today and if they’re American companies you can go back and a lot of times they started in the late 1800s. I think Quaker is one of them. But it’s kind of interesting if you look at the history of food brands, when they started.
Harmony: Well Melissa, we wish you well in your apprenticeship and hope a lot of people get down to visit you in the Palace kitchen or in the Armory kitchen.
Melissa: That’s right.
Harmony: Thank you so much for being here today.
Melissa: Oh, you’re welcome.