KB Inglee lives in Delaware and works at two Living History Museums. She writes short historical mystery fiction. Her episodic novel The Case book of Emily Lawrence is set in the second half of the 19th century. Learn more about KB and her books at her website.
When I began working as an historic interpreter at a living history museum, I had no idea how much fun it would be. I started because a novelist of my acquaintance told me I needed to do the things my character did in order to have the writing ring true.
My favorite programs involve livestock, fiber arts, and milling grain. I am not a cook. I could burn boiling water. In spite of that, now and then, I have been co-opted into cooking on an open hearth or in a wood fired oven.
It's fun for the kids to cook, and they love having their cookies at the end of the session. But we hope they will learn something along the way.
Some of the differences between cooking now and cooking then are:
One would never break an egg directly into the preparation. A farm fresh egg might include a partially formed chick or be rotten. Always break your eggs into a cup before adding them to the more expensive ingredients, like flour and sugar.
A stable baking powder came along in the second half of the 19th century. Before that you had to add baking soda and cream of tartar separately as you are cooking. That way they will do the work you hope they will, leavening your mixture.
All measurements are all approximate. The level measure was popularized in the 1890s by Fannie Farmer. At home I use a cup measure but always measure teaspoons and tablespoons by pouring the dry ingredient into my palm, and the liquid ingredient directly into the batter.
The only way you have to measure the heat of a wood fired oven is by sticking your hand into the oven. An experienced cook knew what cooked at everything from a few inches (quick breads) to a whole arm (a pot of stew).
I can't always put my finger on why having done the activity makes writing about it more authentic, but I have spotted it in books I have read. Clearly the author of A Simple Murder, by Eleanor Kuhns, is a weaver. She doesn't spend a lot of words on the process, but somehow the descriptions have the feelings as well as the facts of the matter. It is a wonderful story about an itinerant weaver, by an author who knows her stuff. On the other hand she doesn’t know much about milling so the mill section is sketchy and feels more distant.
Emily, the protagonist in The Case Book of Emily Lawrence, tries not to cook. She takes after me in that respect. She is an okay baker, but rather messy. She used a wood stove, and later a gas stove. She has never mentioned this to me, but I suspect that after a day at work, she would take her food down to her landlady to cook on the stove that she had been using all day. Trying to light a wood stove late in the afternoon and have it heat properly is nearly impossible.
I have a scene in one of my colonial period short stories in which they have to put a child down the chimney of a house rather like the ones in Plimouth Plantation. My experience with open hearth cooking tells me exactly what he is stepping down into, so while the scene has nothing to do with cooking, and is only a few words long, I saw it exactly in my mind as I wrote it.
Common Jumbles (Snickerdoodles) adapted from The Quaker Woman's Cookbook. The recipes are by Elizabeth Ellicott Lee. They were edited for modern cooks by William Woys Weaver.
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 pound butter
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cream of tartar
Sugar and cinnamon for coating cookie balls before putting in oven.
Elizabeth Lee listed the ingredients but gave no instructions. A proper cook wouldn't need them. Cream sugar and butter. Mix flour, baking soda and cream of tartar. Add flour mixture to sugar mixture. Add eggs and stir until all is mixed.
Take a dollop about the size of a quarter and roll it into a ball. Roll each ball in a sugar cinnamon mixture. Place in the pan. Bake at 350 until golden. You can make this in a Dutch oven in your fireplace or campfire for an even better taste.
Cranberry Cornbread is based on a recipe from Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fanny Merritt Farmer. I use cornmeal from Newlin Grist Mill, stone ground using water power, as it had been in the 1700s. I added cranberries from a private bog on Cape Cod, because I though cranberries and cornbread would be a good combination.
3/4 C cornmeal
1 C wheat flour
1/3 C sugar
3 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 C milk
1 egg well beaten
2 T butter, melted
1 C fresh cranberries
Molasses to taste (that means I never measure it, I just pour it in) half a cup or so
Clean berries and put into a small pan, add molasses and water to equal one cup. Cook over medium heat covered until all the berries have popped open. You may need to reduce it a bit more. Pour berry mixture into cornbread and cut it in until you have a marbled surface and every bite will have some cranberry and some plain cornbread in it. I bake mine in a nine inch round pan, at 350 degrees for 20 minutes and cut it in pie shaped wedges.
The Case Book of Emily Lawrence
Emily Lawrence knows it isn't easy being the first-- and so far--only woman detective in late 19th century Washington DC. With the support of Charles, her husband and business partner, and her own talent for observation and scientific research, Emily tackles the most baffling cases, helping the police solve robberies, kidnappings, and even murder.
Although the work is exciting it is also dangerous: Emily and Charles must balance their pursuit for the truth, with the desire to protect each other. As she gains skills and experience, Emily discovers that the investigations closet to home are often the most challenging.