Beef hearts, pig bladders, tripe, and lots and lots of butter are ingredients kitchen apprentice Kim Kosta will come to know well as she sharpens her skills in the Palace kitchen. As she rises to achieve journeyman status, she’ll have to master 25 recipes at seven levels of difficulty.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Cooking at the Governor’s Palace means using the finest ingredients and the most sophisticated techniques. The process of learning the art of cooking is much the same today as it was in the 18th century. It begins with an apprenticeship.
Our guest is just beginning her apprenticeship to join the full-fledged staff in Williamsburg’s most prestigious kitchen. Today we welcome Kim Kosta. Kim, thank you for being here today.
Kim Kosta: My pleasure.
Harmony: So you are just joining us after a brief stint here in the summer to become a full-time employee at the Governor’s Palace Kitchen. What’s it like?
Kim: It’s amazing, although I’ve been doing this quite a number of years. It is amazing to have access to ingredients I normally wouldn’t have access to, equipment that I don’t have access to, and a support staff of other cooks who’ve been doing this and have a huge breadth of knowledge that they’re always willing to share and help me with.
Harmony: Talk to me. What are some of those ingredients that you wouldn’t have had?
Kim: Well it’s very hard to get pigeons that don’t cost you an arm and a leg, beef tongues, how about beef bladders or bladders of animals? Very hard to get them unless you know somebody who has animals and can butcher them down and give you the bladder. It’s illegal to buy them, so what we use them for is to go ahead and use them for long-term preservation.
If you run your tongue on the inside of your mouth that’s what a bladder feels like. So what you do is stretch it and lay it over the top of a cask or a crock and what it does is as it dries it becomes like the head of a drum, and therefore it preserves. I joke with people and tell them it’s the original Tupperware.
Harmony: And you mentioned some equipment that you haven’t been used to previously. What are you seeing in the Governor’s Palace Kitchen that you haven’t cooked with before?
Kim: We have beautiful copper pots that I would never have cooked in in the kitchens I’ve previously cooked in. We have a spit jack or a clock jack, which is almost our number one attraction. Just about every group who comes in asks about that. It is a learned art, that’s for sure. Also tin kitchens, or tin Dutch ovens as they were called in the period, roast beautifully well and never had an opportunity to use those.
Harmony: You’ve mentioned the clock jack. We should describe for folks who are listening what this is. It’s like a crank up rotisserie.
Kim: It is. It looks like the inside of what you would think as a case clock. It has a series of weights on a long string that you wind up and the weights drop and there’s a fly wheel at the top that you take your hand and you move. Now these are not new, but they’re certainly expensive.
To tell you the truth, the last person to make an innovation on this was Leonardo DaVinci and he put the flywheel up at the top. So when you spin that flywheel, it helps the weights drop and then a rope turns the end of a gadget or a wheel and that in turn, turns the spit, hence why the name spit jack or clock jack.
Harmony: So in front of the fire you can put your chicken and it can be rotating slowly away getting luscious and crispy while you’re chopping the potatoes.
Kim: it’s supposed to be a time saving device and when it behaves itself it absolutely is. When it doesn’t, it’s like I have to say that petulant five year old child, you have to keep your eye on it all the time. Now in a middling class or poor household, you might have just an iron rod: a spit. And you might have your child sit there and rotate it around or do what we do, in the Anderson Kitchen, rotate it, stick a rock in to hold it in place or we have a stick or a like a metal “Y” shaped fork that holds it in place.
Harmony: And you would just rotate it every so often and just turn it.
Kim: Absolutely, exactly.
Harmony: So we’ve talked about you didn’t have these ingredients or some of this equipment before. What is “before” for you? Where are you joining us from?
Kim: Most of my work was in New Jersey. I’ve been in the living history field for 20 years either working for a variety of small museums. I worked for the Merchants and Drovers Tavern, the Bachman Public House in Easton. The last museums I worked for was the Reddington Township Museums. So I’ve been studying foodways and textiles for about 20 years.
Harmony: Have you always focused on 18th century foodways?
Kim: Absolutely, though I do go a little bit earlier. What’s wonderful about what I do is there’s this thread of time that goes through it. People think, “Yeah, sure.” Looking at the table and seeing a stuffed beef heart is not what the average American is going to eat. But look at the thread that starts in the 15th, 16th, 17th century. How about go to South America where you can find stuffed beef heart or go to Europe where you can find squabs on the table or tripe. Tripe is a big dish in South America. It is a big dish in Portugal and Spain.
So what’s wonderful is, modern Americans might not be used to it, but we get visitors from all over the world, they take one look at the table and they can recognize that and identify with it. So I love that about 18th century foodways. Also people look at the food and they might think it’s scary because it’s unusual. We do have pig’s ears on the table, and today I am working with pig’s feet to make mincemeat, but there might be fried chicken and mashed potatoes on the table. There might be apple fritters or something called a sliced apple pudding which really is a Dutch baby from people from the Midwest who will know what that is so it’s relatable. It’s different but it’s not and I love that because as soon as they realize that Colonel Sanders did not invent fried chicken it’s a great day.
Harmony: So you’re beginning an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships in the 18th century were generally five to seven years when someone would be working under the wing of a master, learning the art. Where is your apprenticeship starting?
Kim: I’m a little bit different. I came in the door with 20 years working knowledge of the period. That doesn’t mean I know everything. I most certainly don’t, and we do research all the time. I’m now starting to do research now on things like yeast and vanilla. Was it really used in chocolate, was it not used in chocolate?
I love sugar work, I love candy work. I’m doing more research into that. So I’m starting in between levels you could say. What we have to do is, there’s a series of each level you go to. Twenty five recipes that you have to master before you can move to a next level. Right now I kind of have my feet in all several levels. So I’m working on it.
What I have to do is, as the levels get to four and five till the final or maybe even six and seven, you have to master the skills. And they of course get harder as it goes. Right now I’ve been concentrating on things like fine pastry work as well. My boss does the most magnificent pastry work you ever want to see, and so he’s mentoring me and helping mine to look just as good.
Harmony: You’ve mentioned mastery of 25 recipes. Give me some examples of some of those recipes you have to master.
Kim: Well first, you would have something very simple like carrots in the Dutch fashion which is sliced carrots boiled with fried onions and about, oh I don’t know, a cup of butter. Huge amounts of butter, cream and eggs. Very rich this time period. And then you would go to something like roasting an ox tongue; stuffing it, boiling it, roast it, wrapping it in paper. Then next would be to do fine pastry work, or to do coffin work.
Coffins are very thick, crusted vehicles that you would put something like a stew or a savory dish in it. Cover it. Bake it and that actually acts like Tupperware as well. You can keep that for several weeks fresh. You break open the lid and you eat what’s inside of it, not the pastry itself. It has its roots in the middle ages which is fascinating, but getting that pastry to be perfect, getting the oven to be perfect, getting the temperature outside to be perfect, it’s like a fine dance every day.
Harmony: I think each person on the historic foodways staff brings a certain specialty that arises out of their personal interests and it sounds like you mentioned sugar work and working with pastries were two of your special hobbies. Do you think that’s going to be an area that you develop further for our interpretation of foodways here at Colonial Williamsburg?
Kim: Absolutely. Right now I’m very fascinated with yeast and the breads of the period and the ovens of the period. It’s very different working with barm. Because we have the beer brewing program, I have access to the dregs on the bottom and the foam on the top. And how does that relate to bread in our Anderson Kitchen where we have our temporary military oven?
Heating that oven is like a fine dance every day. You have to get everything just right. Is your wood green? Who started the fire? Did it rain? What’s the temperature outside? Who made the bread? How wet is the bread? Very, very influential and then how old is the yeast? What beer did it come from? How old is the hops? Does it have hops?
Twice I’ve made bread out of the yeast that we’ve gotten from the beer brewing program. The first time I washed it for several days, I made bread out of it. I expected it’d be like modern bread; to be nice and big and fluffy like a Wonderbread. Well it didn’t rise very much, and I was told it shouldn’t because it is not commercial perfect modern-made yeast so it rose just a little bit. And we bit into it, and it was lovely, until you got to swallowing it and then it became like bitter beer. Can I tell you that all the women hated it and all the men loved it? So the next time we did it we washed it a little bit more. I fed it for a few days. I did a French sponge method on it and it was really quite lovely so I’m working on that.
Harmony: So in 18th century kitchens they didn’t buy a packet of Fleishman’s yeast and tear open the envelope.
Kim: No, ma’am.
Harmony: Was beer the primary source of yeast in those kitchens?
Kim: Absolutely. All 18th century yeast comes from beer. Absolutely.
Harmony: And women usually are the ones making beer for households for their kitchens.
Kim: Absolutely, and what’s wonderful about it today you see the shift in modern. There’s this wonderful push towards micro-breweries and home breweries. Frank, my boss, is a wonderful brewer. And when we have people coming in, instead of seeing the women coming in to learn brewing, you have all of the men.
Harmony: What are some of the other misconceptions that people might have about women and cooking in the 18th century? What are visitors surprised to learn when they encounter you in the kitchen?
Kim: Some things change, some things don’t. Right now when you go to a fine restaurant who you going to find in the kitchen? Most of the time you’re going to find a man. Think of Emeril Lagassi for example. Not so much different than in the 18th century. A higher household might have an apprenticed male fully trained in the English and the French culinary arts.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t female chefs; there were. We have a Mrs. Wilson in our kitchen who took over for when one of the royal governor’s cooks either went back to England or passed away. I have to go and review that, but she took over and she was probably not an apprenticed cook, but she knew what she was doing. Lydia Broadnax, in Mr. Wythe’s kitchen knew what she was doing. She was a highly acclaimed and highly prized cook who knew what she was doing. They didn’t go through the formal training. That doesn’t mean they’re not there.
Harmony: What’s your favorite thing about joining the staff in the historic foodways program?
Kim: I get to do what I love every single day, every single day which is wonderful. I learn something every single day. I learn something from the visitors every single day. No day is the same. People said to me when I took this job, “To be honest, you’re going to get bored.” Never: just everyday is different.
Every recipe I’m working on is different. Every project I’m doing is different. Every project leads me down another path to a “what is this?” I’m a “what is this?” girl, which is how I got into this. How is that dress made? What is that made out of? How do you fire that musket? Well how do you start a fire with a flint and steel? So this leads me down a new path every day.
Harmony: We’ve only scratched the surface of so many really interesting topic areas and I hope that our guests come and find you in the kitchens and follow up with you about some of these great topics that we have just sort of skimmed the surface of, because there really is so much more to learn. I’m so glad to have had you as our guest today and happy cooking out there in the kitchens.
Kim: Well thank you very much.