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A recipe for authenticity

Making an antebellum (before balloon whisks) dinner at Old Sturbridge Village

(Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By David Lyon
Globe Correspondent / February 21, 2010

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Five minutes into attacking a pile of apples with a rather blunt paring knife, I began to miss the 21st century. Or even the end of the 19th. If only I had smuggled in a swivel-blade vegetable peeler.

Fifteen of us had volunteered - nay, even paid - to be time-warped to antebellum New England at dinnertime and thrown back on our own devices to make a meal. The intrigue smacked of “Survivor 1840: Old Sturbridge Village.’’ Would someone burn the roast beef? Just exactly what did that woman slip into the mulled cider? What the heck is noyau? (Answer: an almond-brandy liqueur used here to flavor whipped cream.) There was also a camaraderie akin to an old-fashioned barn-raising - or at least what I imagine a barn-raising to be like, based on repeated viewings of the horse and buggy thriller, “Witness.’’

Dinner in a Country Village, which runs on several Saturday nights between November and March, is a perennial favorite at Old Sturbridge Village, says Chip Leis, director of the outdoor history museum’s hands-on cooking programs. In most OSV food programs, costumed interpreters do all the work and the guests enjoy the results. But in Dinner in a Country Village, the diners are the cooks. It is a full-immersion program in mid-19th-century New England food prep.

It could as easily be called “cooking by candlelight.’’ We were met at the entrance to OSV by Anne Fisher, toting a lantern and clad in a long dress, bonnet, and cloak. She went over the safety concerns. “We’re using real knives and real fire,’’ she said. “Use potholders!’’ (The program is for adults only; OSV offers other cooking programs for families.)

While OSV’s Bullard Tavern is the scene for many of the village’s culinary programs, Dinner in a Country Village takes place in the Parsonage, which has a substantial cooking hearth and an in-chimney bake oven. The kitchen is also big enough to accommodate 15 people and three interpreters, whose job is primarily to keep the food prep flowing and introduce participants to, say, the finer points of roasting coffee beans in fireplace coals.

Once we donned our aprons, we divided into teams to tackle the four food groups: appetizers (pounded cheese, mulled cider, onion soup), meat (roast beef and fricasseed chicken), vegetables (roasted carrots, stewed beets, mashed turnips and potatoes, hot slaw), and pastry (butter biscuits, Marlborough Pudding, trifle). What is it with guys and meat? Most of the other men eagerly volunteered to cook flesh. I couldn’t see browning my knuckles on fiery coals, so I joined the pastry table.

Reading recipes by candlelight is not the easiest task, but it hardly mattered, since the late-18th- and early-19th-century recipes that OSV uses leave a lot of room for creative interpretation. “Butter Biscuit,’’ as described in the 1796 “American Cookery’’ by Amelia Simmons, calls for having on hand a quart of bread sponge. “Add one pound butter melted, not hot, and knead into as much flour as will, with another pint of warm milk, be of sufficient consistence to make soft,’’ Simmons breezily explained.

Chances are that in 1840, only a novice cook would have depended on a recipe. Cooking skills acquired through practice trumped written instructions. Experienced cooks in our midst rescued us from the sketchiness of the recipes. One young woman was enlisted to make pie crust for the Marlborough pudding of ground apples baked in pastry. She admitted that she had never made a crust from scratch, so when she froze at the task of cutting butter into flour, a veteran pie maker stepped in and showed her how to swiftly cut pea-size nodules of butter with a pair of blunt knives. It wasn’t the first time she had given the lesson - one of her sons is now a professional pastry chef.

The appetizer crew moved fastest, which meant we sipped mulled cider and snacked on pounded cheese on common crackers while we tended to our own preparations. Making pounded cheese was a noisy, vigorous task that consisted of using a large pestle to smash cheddar cheese, butter, sugar, mace, and wine into a paste in a very large wooden bowl. The resulting spread was at least as tasty as any from the supermarket dairy case. It was a guy job, and one of the gentlemen speculated it might make a good Super Bowl snack.

As the great logs of hard wood burned down to coals, the meat crew arranged a roast of beef on a spit in a tin reflector oven facing the coals. The vegetable crew raked coals out onto the hearth and set their pots on squat cast-iron tripods. We pastry chefs kneaded, rolled, and arranged our “butter biscuits’’ on a pan like so many Pillsbury dinner rolls. Fisher had tended to the bake oven by filling it with coals for a half-hour, then raking them out. She tipped us off that the rolls could sit closer to the hot brick walls than the buttery pie crust, which was more susceptible to burning.

With a roomful of people working at full tilt and a hot cooking fire radiating into the room, OSV’s advice about dressing in layers was well considered. I quickly got the impression that circa 1840 country folk probably didn’t miss central heating, at least at dinnertime. The guys who had elected meat duty took turns standing at the fire, then ducking outside (where it was 15 degrees) to cool off.

Our pastry crew’s final challenge was the construction of a trifle filled with a vast mound of whipped cream. Looking at the quart of heavy cream in a big stoneware bowl, one of my pastry comrades enlisted her husband to do the whipping. He quickly discovered that neither the electric mixer nor the rotary egg beater had been invented. He asked for a balloon whisk, which, if memory serves, was introduced to American kitchens in the 1960s by Julia Child. One of the interpreters handed him a bundle of birch twigs - a clever example of low technology that did the trick.

We had begun preparations around 5:30 p.m. Two hours later, dinner was ready and I learned yet another lesson about the culinary technology and practices of pre-Civil War New England. Table forks were awkward, two-tined affairs, designed to spear food and hold it in place. Polite company ate from their blunt, broad knives.

Veterans of OSV’s country kitchen dinners (about half the group) had faith all along in the process, but we novices were surprised at how good the food was. I confess to surreptitiously using my razor-sharp pocketknife to deconstruct my roast beef, but my fellow diners seemed to relish all the extra chewing. It seemed . . . authentic. Even the coffee, roasted until nearly burned and settled in the pot with eggshells, had that old-time New England flavor.

We were, of course, lucky to be able to leave at the end of the night. Otherwise, we would have been up at dawn to start all over again to make breakfast.

David Lyon, coauthor of the hungrytravelers.com food and travel blog, can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go

Old Sturbridge Village

1 Old Sturbridge Village Road

Sturbridge

508-347-3362; www.osv.org

“Dinner in a Country Village’’ programs offered November-March. Reservations for 2010-11 are currently open. $85.