Focusing on Food: Conference in Canada offers shared knowledge

By Kimberly Costa

The Historic Foodways staff is not known for letting grass grow under our feet. We are continually researching foodways and related subject matter. This research often leads to the creation of new programs, educational opportunities and training, working with vendors and hosting symposiums here at Colonial Williamsburg.

Staff members get the opportunity to participate, both as attendees and presenters, at a variety of conferences and symposiums. This year Melissa Blank and I attended the annual ALHFAM conference as representatives of both Historic Foodways and Colonial Williamsburg. We were two of seven members from Historic Trades who attended the conference in Calgary in the province of Alberta, Canada.

ALHFAM, (the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums) is an international organization serving the interests and needs of its individual and institutional members and supporting experiential interpretations of history.” Members include museums and historic sites of all sizes (including Colonial Williamsburg), volunteers, re-enactors, vendors of historic goods and services, and independent scholars.

The organization hosts both regional conferences, as well as the annual meeting, which will be held in our own Revolutionary City in June, 2015.

One of the sessions Kimberly attended included period garments.

One of the sessions Kimberly attended included period garments.

One of the biggest benefits of attending the ALHFAM conference is the willingness of attendees to share their knowledge, offer different insights and help guide you down new pathways of research. This was evident during Melissa’s presentation, “Feeding the Anderson Crew.” Several attendees gave her new venues and research possibilities that will aid her in the interpretation plan for the Anderson Armory site.

Sharing extends to CW staff members, as well.

Ed Schultz, who works at our Great Hopes Plantation, participated in the session “A View from the Furrow: Farmer’s Daughters.” Though not food-related, I was able to help presenter Kandie Carle, of KC Enterprises during her presentation, “Wearing Original Garments: When To, When Not To, and Why I Do.” During the session, I provided several stories and insights into wearing period garments.

Melissa Blank tries her hand at hand knotting with Debbie Turpin's help.

Melissa Blank tries her hand at hand knotting with Debbie Turpin’s help.

Another benefit of attending the conference is the opportunity to try one’s hand at a variety of historic skills. Melissa and I spent a wonderful afternoon with our own CW wigmakers, Debbie Turpin and Terry Lyons, as they taught us how to hand-knot or net. What does that have to do with foodways?  You never know when you may have to knot your own fishing net!

The conference breakout sessions cover a myriad of historic topics and subjects, with a nice variety that focus on foodways.

During the session “Plain But Wholesome,” presenter and author of the book by the same title, Brock Cheney, explained there are defining markers in Mormon foodways, including the use of fruit as a celebration element.cow

AG 101-Beef, gave a comprehensive overview of cows and cattle, which included such subjects as historic breeds, care and feeding, breeding and the development of the modern meat industry. This information fit nicely with the information  Elaine Shirley, CW Coach and Livestock, shared with me.  The two sessions have helped me toward a better understanding of why cows and beef are such a big part of life during the colonial period.

Kathleen Wall of Plimouth Plantation presented a program that compared and contrasted the evolution of both the American and Canadian Thanksgiving. The meals of both countries are primarily the same, according to Kathleen. The difference: The use of maple syrup in Canadian pumpkin pie. When we were offered a slice of pumpkin pie during our visit to Bar U ranch, we were surprised to find out she was right. There is indeed a distinct taste of maple syrup in the pie, though I’m not sure the average American would be able to pick it out.

The conferences aren’t all just breakout sessions. We spent the day at Heritage Park, our host for the conference. The village is made up of both re-created and original buildings, spanning from 1860 through 1940. It reminded me a great deal of Colonial Williamsburg.

Rhubarb was on the menu

Rhubarb was on the menu

Spending the day at the village, visiting buildings and going to programming really offered me a new perspective as to what visiting CW must be like for our visitors. During the day I visited three distinct period homes. At each, a cook was making a different period recipe using rhubarb. Like our Anderson Armory kitchen, the food prepared was shared with costumed staff. Each recipe was seasonal, and reflected the social status of each household.

It was also nice to see cooks working on cast iron stoves instead of our open hearths. I realized they come with their own set of challenges, just as our kitchens do for our staff.

Kimberly at the cookhouse at the Bar U Ranch.

Kimberly at the cookhouse at the Bar U Ranch.

During our visit to the Bar-U ranch I visited the cookhouse. This second cookhouse was built after the original burned down in the early 20th century.  I was pleasantly surprised to find their interpretation is very close to what we do at the Anderson Armory kitchen. The cooks working at the ranch were both men and women, and would provide good, filling meals for the men working at the ranch.

After all, who can work if they’re hungry?

Where our workers would line up with their cups and bowls, the cookhouse has three dining tables with huge lazy susans in the middle, so that workers could simply rotate the wheel when they wanted more food.

Serving on the lazy susan

Serving on the lazy susan

The ranch hands also slept upstairs, while the cook had a bedroom on the first floor. This deviates slightly from our interpretation, as Mr. Anderson converted an old tavern into housing for the men. It is across the yard, but to me that is close enough!

During our visit we were also treated to a lovely, energetic presentation from a female staff member about life on the trail and church wagon cooking, its challenges and necessity to the cattle industry.

We’re excited for the ALHFAM annual meeting and conference to come to Williamsburg in June of 2015.  Our staff is already planning on offering a wide variety of foodways programming, from hands-on cooking and brewing opportunities to a cook’s walking tour.  We hope to see you here!

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