Members of the Historical Cooking Guild of the Catawba Valley serve up from-scratch recipes at the President James K. Polk State Historic Site in Pineville.
Story and photography by Virginia and Charles Pike
Charlotte, North Carolina
Those of us who do our holiday cooking using only made-from-scratch recipes feel a real sense of accomplishment. Laboring without mixes or prepared ingredients makes us feel pretty proud.
Well, there are a few women in North Carolina who make our efforts seem puny. Carolyn Dilda, Audrey Mellichamp, Pam Dudeck and other members of the Historical Cooking Guild of the Catawba Valley are an intrepid bunch who re-create the kitchens of the late 1700s to early 1800s.
Every second and fourth Thursday, September through May, these ladies don period costumes and cook over a fire at the President James K. Polk State Historic Site in Pineville. We watched them cook over an open hearth one afternoon.
Clad in jackets and long skirts, aprons, caps and wraps, they have to be careful to keep their clothing clear of the fire. Nearly everything requires constant tending. Think of it as putting together a Thanksgiving meal for a crowd without timers, stoves or most of your utensils.
Over an iron pot of boiling water in the yard, they prepare root vegetables—potatoes, beets and carrots—and quaking pudding, a dessert steamed in a cloth bag. They cook the rest of the meal over a large fireplace in the kitchen, which is a small cabin next to the main house.
In Polk’s day, those who could afford them had separate kitchens so that the main house remained cool in summer—and an accidental fire would not bring down the entire home. Back then, meat was whatever the men had caught—usually goose, duck or deer. For today’s meal, game hens in twine harnesses hang from the front of the fireplace. To assure that the hens roast evenly, the cooks regularly twist the strings tightly, causing the birds to rotate—a primitive rotisserie.
A flat cast-iron pan over the hottest coals holds sweet potatoes, while apples and winter squash bake on cooler coals in a corner of the hearth. After the sweet potatoes are done, cornmeal johnnycakes go into the pan. Johnnycakes traveled well and were a hearty meal for a hunter to eat as he roamed the land in search of game—an energy bar for pioneers.
After harvest was in, and there was more time for travel and visiting, a backcountry holiday dinner might also include a pumpkin roasted with cream, apples and nutmeg; garden greens; and plum pudding or fruitcake.
The guild seeks to be historically accurate, using recipes—or “receipts,” as they were once called—from period cookbooks. Working with these recipes often presents a challenge. Many measurements are given in such vague terms as “a pinch” or “a handful”; sometimes there are no measurements at all.
The members also learn to appreciate flavors quite different from today’s. For example, women of that era often used cinnamon and nutmeg in meat dishes, a practice not common in today’s kitchens.
We watched the women work for about three hours. The scent of roasted hen was wonderful. When it was over, we wanted to sample some of their dishes. But sadly, the guild’s rules forbid it—only cooks can eat the food. Well, these ladies certainly earned it.