A Talking Kitchen: History Speaks at the Wythe House

Listen closely in this kitchen. In it, objects speak of their owners and of their makers. Tools speak of technology and ability. Small personal items speak of meager comforts in a hard life. Curator Amanda Keller worked to outfit the Wythe Kitchen and imbue it with a richly layered history.

Learn more: Hear more about faux food in this 2013 podcast: Making a 200 Year Old Supper


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Everybody loves a kitchen makeover, and today we have the story of a renovation in a historic gentry home. Joining us now is curator Amanda Keller, who is part of a team working on a reinterpretation of a kitchen space at the Wythe House. Amanda, thank you for being here today.

Amanda Keller: Thank you for having me.

Harmony: We’re working a kitchen project at the Wythe House. This is a kitchen that was dormant for many years, which is now being reopened and reinterpreted. Tell me about the kitchen that was there, how that kitchen was being interpreted. Did you say in the ‘80s?

Amanda: Yes, in the ‘80s. That’s when it was first installed. It was actually installed by two curators: Jay Gaynor, who’s now head of historic trades and Martha Katz-Hyman. They interpreted that space back in 1987, actually. So we have beautiful slides and images of what it used to look like. But unfortunately that site needed to be used for other things, so then now we finally get to reinstall and actually open it again, which is really exciting.

Harmony: And this is at the George Wythe House?

Amanda: Yes. George Wythe House.

Harmony: And this kitchen is a freestanding outbuilding?

Amanda: Yes, it is.

Harmony: So how was it interpreted in its first incarnation?

Amanda: It was pretty much interpreted as we have now. It’s still a kitchen, but we’re really focused on the slaves that worked there. So we are trying to show that presence of Lydia and also Fanny.

But, you know, they had 12 to 14 slaves working on just that one site, so we’re talking about all of them really. But mostly the focus is on the kitchen and who would have been cooking in the kitchen. Because we have school groups that come here and its good for them to be able to see a kitchen that’s not being cooked in necessarily, but we can then talk about the bigger picture. Talk about the enslaved that lived and worked in that site.

And we do have wonderful kitchens that are open in the Historic Area where they actually make meals which is really valuable. You can learn about food in the 18th century which is really neat. But I think it’s sometimes good to have a static kitchen where you just look and listen to interpreters talk about the people that would have lived and worked in that site.

Harmony: So you’re refurnishing this building which has stood empty for a little while or been used for different purposes?

Amanda: Yes, it did.

Harmony: When you are looking at refurnishing it, are you going to approach some things differently than the first ?

Amanda: Yeah. We went back to the Robert Tucker inventory. It was taken in 1768. We chose that individual because that was the probate inventory that was used to furnish the entire Wythe House. Because unfortunately when Wythe passed away, he did not have a probate for that house in Williamsburg. So we kind of had to find a comparable inventory to use. Now because of that, we then went back to that inventory and used it to furnish the kitchen so we looked.

Harmony: When we talk about inventories, these are invaluable source of information. When a person died, someone would come through their house and write down every single item that was in that house. So as a curator, when you’re looking to restore a home or find a comparable home you can find a list of every single object that would have been in that home.

Amanda: Yeah, they’re invaluable.

Harmony: So you don’t have an inventory for the Wythe House, but you have one for a sort of analogous home.

Amanda: Yes, exactly. You nailed it. And we do know that inventories didn’t list every object that would have been there. That’s one of the things, you know, with every primary source you have, you know there’s always a hole. There’s something missing. And often with probate inventories, women’s possessions wouldn’t have been listed if it’s the husband’s inventory.

We also know that the enslaved, any objects they would have owned or had in their sleeping spaces, would not have been listed. We also know that often kitchen materials, especially anything wooden, anything small like buckets, sometimes don’t appear on probate inventories. So we took it, we use it as a guide and then we actually had to fill it in.

There were so many things not listed, that to have a fully working, functioning kitchen you would have needed certain things that we just didn’t have on the inventory. So we then supplemented the inventory with what we did know through print sources, paintings of kitchens, you know, recipe books. We looked at types of tools that you would have needed to make certain types of recipes for the Wythe House, things like that. And then we looked at other comparable inventories. We looked at Peyton Randolph’s inventory for what was listed in his kitchen. You know, you can kind of gather information from looking at other sites as well.

Harmony: What a big project.

Amanda: It was fun.

Harmony: I imagine there must be some things that you only learn when you try to cook in that kitchen, too.

Amanda: Yes.

Harmony: Have you had somebody in there to try and cook?

Amanda: We did, we did, and you know the historic foodways department here is invaluable. Not only did they tell us what cooking in that kitchen was like because they used to be there many, many years ago, I think Frank told me it was over 20 years ago that they were actually cooking in that site. He complains a lot about the bake oven. He told me it does not work. Don’t try to put bread in there, you know, it does not work, you know, that just really irked him.

But every kitchen is built differently and, you know, when it’s a reconstruction, you know, some things might not be built to work as well as they would have in the 18th century maybe. But yeah, he was really great but also he volunteered to come in and cook in the kitchen for about two weeks with his staff to dirty up the kitchen. Because what happened was, when you put an entire room in and install it with brand new objects everything looks too clean, everything looks too shiny. There was no…the fireplace was even too pristine and people, you know, kind of went, “This doesn’t really look authentic.”

So we asked foodways to come in and of course they jumped at the opportunity. They said, “You know, we’re stretched thin, we’re already at the Palace and at the Armory.” But what they did was, they took a few days off of one of those sites and then came to the Wythe. So it all worked out in the end and I think he really loved coming back to the Wythe Kitchen to cook for a little bit even though he hates the bread oven, but everything else was good from what I understand.

Harmony: Speaking of historic foodways, one of their great assets is that they interpret cooking at different levels of society, so when you find them at the Governor’s Palace they’re cooking the richest most opulent food, the most, you know, wonderful delicacies and then you can find them down at the Armory kitchen fixing very workaday food for workers there at the Armory. What strata does the Wythe Kitchen fill? What kind of house is that?

Amanda: You know, it’s really in between those two things. I don’t think it would be as close to the Armory. It would be much closer to the Palace. So they would have had definitely high-end food, definitely closer to what Peyton Randolph would have been probably eating, and the Everard House as well, I would think.

Definitely would have had very high-fashion English food on the table. We are actually in the process of making faux food for the table, kind of updating not only the stuff we put on the table in the dining room, but also connecting it to the kitchens. So we want to put what’s in the kitchen also on the dining room table so visitors can actually see that connection.

But right now we’re working on focusing on working with the colonial gardens and the gardeners and getting actual produce that is produced here in Williamsburg, having it reproduced and put in the kitchen as if it’s going to be about to be cut up and cooked and put on the table. Because we don’t show that anywhere. We don’t show whole vegetables that are faux. We don’t show whole fruits and things, so I think that’s going to be really exciting to kind of make that connection of what was grown locally and what would have been available here in the 18th century. What did it look like? A lot of people don’t understand, you know, broccoli wasn’t green in the 18th century. You know, there’s so many things that we have, you know, preconceived notions about that we don’t really have examples out in the Historic Area.

Harmony: It’s a wonderful layer of authenticity to know that even the prop food on the table is telling you something about the local area. . .

Amanda: Yes, we try.

Harmony: . . . about that level household. George Wythe was a prominent Virginia citizen, lawyer, you could even call... I don’t think he counts as the founding class and

Amanda: He’s important.

Harmony: ... a member of the gentry level of society, that upper 2% of wealthy households. So he wasn’t cooking in his kitchen, his wife wasn’t cooking in that kitchen, who was the cook in that kitchen and how are you telling her story?

Amanda: Her name was Lydia. We don’t know a ton about her, but we know which years she worked for the Wythes and eventually he actually freed her after his wife’s death. But she chose to stay on with the family. So we do know a little bit about her and we know that she was there cooking in the kitchen which is exciting. And we do have a room that adjoins the kitchen and we do know that she probably would have lived in that space, so we try to furnish that room as if it was a cook’s, an enslaved cook’s interior.

Martha Katz-Hyman and other scholars are really doing groundbreaking research that slaves did own objects. You know, we often have that mentality of just broken ceramics, lots of sort of cast down objects, but they actually had sometimes their own money, their own income. They did side projects. They would be leased out to other owners as well to do other projects. So the people are actually going and they were consumers. They were buying other objects.

So we do hope that we can just keep adding things to our knowledge and kind of keep updating the interior as more information comes to light, but we try to put out objects, not only just bedding and clothing, but also personal items that maybe she had like teapots, teacups, ceramics, even though they were part of the lowest class in Virginia, that they actually did try to build a life here and they would have had objects that would have sort of reflected that.

Harmony: What really impresses me as we talk is that this is not a mute space. Every object is telling you something about even though it’s not being interpreted, there’s not a living person in there talking, every object is telling you something about how this room was used, who was there, and the society that it was a part of.

Amanda: Exactly.

Harmony: Talk to me about some of the objects that you’re bringing into the Wythe kitchen. A lot of the furnishings and tools you’ve had to bring in has actually been a collaborative effort with Historic Trades.

Amanda: Yes, for what I do in the Historic Area, I could not do my job without Historic Trades. We have such a good working relationship. I can literally just call them up or email them and say, “Hey, I need this, have you ever made one of these?” And if they haven’t, they will come, they will look at an original in our collection and storage. They will measure it. They will photograph it, and then somehow in a few weeks or a few months later they present me with a replica or a reproduction that is just amazing. They’re so talented. But I literally, every time I have a project, I have to sit down with them, show them a huge long list of intimidating, you know, like we need all of this and they just go, “Ok”, you know, they’re fine with it.

Harmony: What are the types of things you might be asking them to help provide?

Amanda: So, we worked very closely with Ken Schwarz in the blacksmith’s shop. We needed basically every piece of iron you could need to outfit a fireplace in a kitchen so everything from even a clock jack. Do you know how hard those are to make? Have you seen clock jacks? They’re actually used to rotate the spit in the hearth; to actually keep the meat rotating.

Harmony: The gadget you would sort of wind up that would rotate the spit for you?

Amanda: Exactly, so that you didn’t have to do it by hand. So it’s kind of a labor saving device and only a few kitchens in the Historic Area show one of those on display. We have one at the Weatherburn’s Tavern kitchen where a lot of cooking would have taken place. We have one at the Governor’s Palace Kitchen and also Peyton Randolph’s kitchen. So only certain people would have been able to afford something like that, and to have to make one from scratch – our blacksmiths are really talented.

But everything down to pot hooks for hanging pots in the oven, so even the smallest detail they had to make for the kitchen. We didn’t have any of that on hand. So that was a huge project. By the way, when we were doing this the entire time the tinsmith was, the tin shop was being built down the street at the Armoury project. So that was really intense for them as well to have to make all of the hardware for the tinsmith’s shop and then in addition to have to do all of these other things for us. so I’m sure they were pretty torn during the whole thing, but they somehow did it.

And then we worked with the joiners to make wooden objects; things like knife trays for bringing the flatware from the kitchen to the dining room table and then back to the kitchen for cleaning so objects like that would have traveled back and forth from the house and into the kitchen but we tried to just furnish the kitchen with reproductions based on the antiques in our collections.

Harmony: You would have needed pots and pans, pitchers…

Amanda: Pots, pans, everything, everything. I mean stoneware crocks. We obviously had to go outside the Foundation for that because we don’t have a person locally here who makes the ceramics, but pretty much everything else was made here.

The coopers made us washtubs, stands. They made us chopping benches, which is something that I had never seen appear on a probate of inventory before. They would have been long pieces of wood with legs and you would just use them for chopping. So they were like small temporary tables that you could move around to do your chopping. And it was really cool to just work on these projects and get to see, kind of analyze an inventory and then try to make it come to life. That was what was really neat about the whole thing.

Harmony: Well your excitement for this project and the research and the bringing it to life is really infectious. I can’t wait to see it myself and I hope that all of our listeners get a chance to come by and see this kitchen and just listen to the stories that all of those objects are telling them. It’s wonderful to know that everything you look at is telling you something. And it’s a great testament to the work that you and the other curators and the trades people here at Colonial Williamsburg are doing, that every direction you cast your eye, you’re seeing something that’s telling you about the past.

Amanda, thank you for being our guest today.

Amanda: Thank you.

Harmony: We appreciate having you.

Amanda: Thank you so much.

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