Journeyman foodways tradesman Barbara Scherer discusses the elaborate serving and savoring of meals in 18th-century Williamsburg.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you will meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Barbara Scherer, who is a journeyman tradesman in foodways at Colonial Williamsburg, and the first question has got to be, “What is a journeyman tradesman in foodways?”
Barbara Scherer: Well, in food, in the industry in the 1700 and 1800s â€“ and even actually today â€“ you have to go through an apprenticeship. Now, in this time period, you worked for seven years under somebody, a bit like a common chef would be today. And you literally learn all the French cuisines, and all the English cuisines, and in Colonial Williamsburg, we do a final presentation of a colonial dinner. My dinner this year, just past, was 22 dishes. We had 10 Colonial Williamsburg employees [who] sat down in the Governor’s Palace classroom, and they dined 18th-century style â€“ and dining 18th-century style is something completely, completely different to dining todayâ€¦
Lloyd: â€¦well, if it has 22 dishes, absolutely rightâ€¦
Barbara: â€¦yes, but not only that, where today we sit around the table, and we’ve turned all the time, we’ve made this wonderful food; we’ve placed it all on the table, and then after grace, the first thing we do is we start handing out the food â€“ you have this; you have this; and your presentation displays have all gone to pot.
Well, in this time period, what we’re doing is as simple as this: Your food stays still and your empty plates travel around the table, and this is how the art of conversation starts about. You might be good at one thing, like cutting of the chicken, or something like that, but unfortunately that chicken or turkey or piece of beef is not in front of you. You’ve got something else in front of you, so you’ve got to know the skills of how to carve things, how to serve things correctly, because otherwise people will actually write about you in their diaries in this time period and tell you what a gross man you wereâ€¦
Barbara: â€¦because you don’t know how to dine properly, and dining is a social grace. You’re going to be at the dining room table for two hours â€“ you’re having polite conversation; you’re passing your plates around; you are filling each other’s plates. Now, if you don’t listen properly, and you put food on somebody’s plate that they don’t really wantâ€¦once it gets back to them, they are meant to eat the plate [of food] clean.
Barbara: â€¦but you know basically there will be, let’s see, you’re going to start off with a soup. If I explain what I did for my dinner, then maybe it might show you the kinds of things that you could have. We started off with a watercress soup, which is actually a spicy soup. Then we had, for the first course, we had some Virginia ham â€“ every household is going to give you Virginia ham in this time period â€“ we also had a roasted leg of lam with some mint sauce. Also in this course was a brown fricassee of chicken, apple pie, pound cake, spinach on toast, and alsoâ€¦
Lloyd: â€¦I’m still trying to pick up spinach on toast after apple pie.
Barbara: Well, you see, appleâ€¦you are thinking, now you see, you see, you’re thinking of apple pie â€“ oh, it’s got to be a dessert, but it is heavy â€“ only light and delicate and wonderful things are desserts.
Lloyd: Where is that written? I like heavy things.
Barbara: Well, no you don’t, because, all right then, let’s say for Thanksgiving, what do you all do? You all eat your dinner, and then mum comes out and says, “let’s do our pumpkinâ€¦” â€“ you call it pie, but in this time period we would call it pudding, because it hasn’t got a top on it â€“ “let’s put our pumpkin pie on the table,” and then everybody goes “oh, god, no, can’t eat it â€“ full, full, full â€“ three hours later, “yeah, let’s have some!” Whereas in this time period â€“ no, your sweet heavy things are with your meats. Where do we get our cranberries for our turkey, our apple for our pork? These are all because of this thing â€“ because we have sweets with our savory things, nothing heavyâ€¦delicate.
Also getting back to the dinner, you’ve got a potato dish with this, a roasted potato and a roasted parsnip dish, and that was just the first course. Then, your second course is going to be some curried rabbit with rice; you also have oyster ice cream, ceviche fish, and some beefsteak with fried onions. Now, a salad was put on this course because it’s only available in the autumn and in the spring. We think of salad all year ’round â€“ not in this time period â€“ too hot. And also, you’ve also got to think of some more vegetables, so we have forced mushrooms with this, and we have Chelsea buns on this course. You might think of Chelsea buns today as being the forerunner of the cinnamon roll. That’s exactly what it is. And we have a sago pudding on this course.
So, there are your two courses â€“ they have to literally taste everything from the oyster ice cream right the way through. And then desserts â€“ we have candied orange and lemon rinds, sugared almonds, a marzipan hedgehog, marzipan fruits, and we also did a syllabub and some jams and marmalades, and they have to literally eat everything.
Lloyd: How long does it take you to do this?
Barbara: The apprenticeship or the day?
Lloyd: The dinner.
Barbara: The dayâ€¦well, see, I’ve been working on my dinner really hard for about a month getting things done. The ceviche fish have to be done two weeks, the oyster ice cream was done a week beforehandâ€¦are you surprised to hear of oyster ice cream, because I can tell by the look on your faceâ€¦
Lloyd: Well, I was trying to piece it out. I like oysters. I am from this area originally so I grew up with it, but I do believe you are the first person I have heard say “oyster ice cream” out loud.
Barbara: (Laughs) Well, you see, only reason why I ask that question is because when we mention oyster ice cream in the governor’s kitchen â€“ because that’s where we can document having ice cream â€“ people always go, “oh my god, it’s not chocolate; it’s not strawberry; it’s not vanilla.” No, it’s not, but yet we can have all them, but we can have tea [ice cream], we can have the oyster ice cream. You name it; we can do it in ice cream. Think of ice cream in this time period as being frozen custard. And also, think of the oyster ice creamâ€¦Richard Schumann, who plays Patrick Henry â€“ he thought it was the best thing he had ever tasted in his life. He really did. And, it was supposed to be George Washington’s favorite ice cream.
Lloyd: Oh, really?
Barbara: Think of it as being frozen chowderâ€¦ is the best way I can describe it â€“ frozen chowder. It’s very, very rich and flavorful, but you make your chowder. You strain it, and then you just use the liquid, so you’re not having any bits of oysters in your mouth, you are just getting that intense flavor of the ice. And then you use the ice cream maker, and you make your ice cream.
Lloyd: Can visitors watch you doing this?
Barbara: Oh yes, when we made the oyster ice cream for this dinner, actually my junior interpreters made it â€“ which are young girls that have worked in this program for three years with me â€“ they actually made the ice cream for my apprenticeship dinner, and part of the apprenticeship is also passing on your skills and organization. It’s not only cooking the food, but it’s getting it onto the table on time. It’s getting it organized so that everything is done so that on the day everything is good, and is easy for you to doâ€¦
Lloyd: What do people mostly want to know from you?
Barbara: Well, in the summer, they seem to want to know why are we cooking when it’s hot, because we are all sweating like pigs. We just say, “Well, everybody has to eat. There’s no other way about it.” [And they say] “Oh, I don’t know whether I could work in this heat.” And, then that’s when we explain why the kitchen is not in the house. It’s not because of fire, like most people seem to think, “Oh, kitchen is not in your house because of fire.” But if you look in the north of the country, they have two kitchens â€“ they have one in their house in the winter and one outside in the summer. Now if that was the case and kitchens were not in your house in the summer because of fire, then why is your kitchen in your house in the winter? It’s not because of fire; in the winter it’s there to give you the heat for the north. But we’re in the south here. We have no problem with real cold weather here. So, you can take your food over there. You’re taking it over in pans and on plates, and then you are putting it onto warm china plates in the warming room. The china would never leave the house. It would stay in the house.
But, people are always surprised to see that we are cooking in the summer, it’s so hot in here, they are justâ€¦you know, of course they say about the heat, “Are you hot?” and there is no other answer but yes.
I then explain to them that when we get a piece of meat, or say we’ve got a bird, we took off its feathers and then we’ve got its skin to the fire, basically what are they doing? They are walking around in t-shirts; they’re showing their skin to the sun, which is cooking their skin, so I actually say to them, “You are probably hotter than what I am, because you are actually cooking your skin right now.” If you look at the hot countries, they wear the long sleeves, the long gowns all the way down to the ground; it’s just to keep you cooler. It’s to keep the heat off your skin.
Lloyd: I’ll make you a bet they don’t want to hear that.
Barbara: They don’t â€“ you are absolutely correct.
Lloyd: I was told, and want to ask just to be sure, do you do any butchering?
Barbara: Yes, indeed, we butcher the second Saturday in December â€“ it’s always our “hogs to ham” day. We get eight 18th-century pigs. We purchase them from Mount Vernon. And, we butcher them down. It’s a wonderful day. We have lots of fun. Lots of families come out, especially when we’re taking the heads off the pigs â€“ all the children want to have their pictures taken with the heads of the animals.
Lloyd: Why does that not surprise me? That’s a child’s reaction.
Barbara: Yes, indeed.
Lloyd: Me and the pig.
Barbara: That’s right. We’re also, on the 29th of November, we will be butchering down four sheep at the Governor’s Palace, and we’ll be doing that in the kitchen.
Lloyd: Is that the way it was done? You would think that butchering would be done outsideâ€¦
Barbara: No, we would actually in this time period purchase our meat from a butcher because we are a city.
Lloyd: 2,000 people â€“ and you are a city?
Barbara: Oh, yes, sir. We are a city.
Lloyd: So, you got your meat from the butcher. Now it’sâ€¦you mention, December holiday time. Was Christmas a big eating holiday â€“ dining holiday?
Barbara: Well, it depends on who you’re looking at â€“ how much money do you have?
Lloyd: Ah, okayâ€¦
Barbara: How much money do you have?
Lloyd: So the answer is the same as todayâ€¦
Barbara: Put it this way, the wealthy do they not eat well today? That’s like this time period. The wealthy always eat well, and the poor will struggle by. In this time period, you’ve got to think of not turkeyâ€¦in this time period the number one meat eaten is beef, then you’ve got lamb and pork, and your smaller animals are coming on next. But basically, think of a roasted piece of beef, you can also think of Virginia ham, a turkey, maybe some pork, some fresh pork, mutton â€“ do you know what mutton is?
Barbara: You do, okay what is mutton?
Lloyd: Mutton is sheep meat.
Barbara: Yes, I know, but how do you know the difference between lamb and mutton?
Lloyd: The only thing â€¦ when I’ve eaten it, it is fattier.
Barbara: Yes, do you know why it is fattier?
Barbara: Because it’s old. You can’t call a sheep “lamb” once it’s had its first birthday. That’s how you can differ between mutton and lamb.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.