Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Thoughts are coming...how to serve and be served

This past weekend was Defiance and Independence weekend at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York. Pierre and I were asked to come down and portray the cooks for the officers for the weekend. We had done this before, on the fly, earlier in the Spring for another event, and had so much fun, of course we jumped at the chance to do it again.

Cooking for a group requires some pre-planning, especially when you cross an international border. There are some things I can plan ahead, and pre-cook, but there are things that I am not allowed to cross the border with, and so must buy in the United States. For this weekend, I prepared one of the breakfast items ahead and froze them until we were ready to leave. I spent the rest of the week prior to, baking bread, making switchel syrup, and packing the kitchen box with the dry goods I would need for the weekend with items like sugar, molasses, maple syrup, tea, coffee, salt, vinegar, oatmeal, and mustard. I tried to pack these items in historically accurate containers as much as possible, first, so I wouldn't be dealing with plastic or glass trash in camp, but also so that if need be, these items could be left out in public view. When I am cooking, it is for public spectacle, so everything modern must be hidden from view. Because I was cooking for so many people, I have noticed that I need to make some more linen bags, and purchase a few more container items for the bits and pieces I need to pack in my kitchen box. I had to resort to a couple of snap top lidded bottles that needed to be covered, they will be replaced with cork topped bottles shortly.

We are able to cross the border with some food items as long as they are in their original store packaging. This made my life a bit easier, as I knew I could bring some favourite pork items across with no issue. Our local butcher usually has things like real smoked hams (not that 'formed', boneless stuff), thick sliced bacon, and creton that tastes remarkably like Pierre's mum's traditional recipe in little plastic pots that exactly fit into my little potted meat pots when transferred. We can also bring cheese across for the time being. All fruit and vegetables need to be bought in the US though, as it is easier to deal with the root and seed restrictions. We also bought most of the other items at the grocery store in Plattsburg as it was just easier.

We did have an itemized list of everything we were bringing across, down to number of packages, and each dry good. It turned out to be one of the easiest border crossings ever! The agent glanced at our list, but that was it, we were on our way to the eighteenth century.

Our menu for the weekend was as follows:
Saturday morning, breakfast of oatmeal, coffee, tea, bread, cheese.
Saturday lunch of cold chicken with mustard sauce, leeks and bacon, a quick cucumber pickle, bread, cheese, and fresh cherries.
Saturday afternoon meeting/'tea' break of creton, bread, cheese, cherries
Saturday evening supper of smoked ham, baked beans, bread.

Sunday morning, breakfast of oatmeal puddings (sausage like, consisting of oatmeal onions, salt, pepper, lard, in a sausage casing), bread, creton, cheese, coffee and tea.
Sunday lunch of roasted prime rib, with orange ginger chutney, buttered carrots and parsnips, the quick cucumber pickle, bread, cheese and cherries.

Cherries were in season this past week, the strawberries are done for this year, and modern strawberries are too large in shape. Apples are still over a month away. Peaches might be another week or so. I could have done something with dried or cooked fruit from last year's harvest, and have thoughts for the next time we do this. The only other thing that I am not sure worked, was Saturday morning breakfast. I'm going to have to think on that one for a bit. Next time, I would also like to prepare a few other items in the week or so prior to, so that service runs a bit more smoothly. I would also like to have one other dedicated kitchen staff-member to help get things out in a timely fashion. This may also require the building of a second table as a prep station or wash station, and better communication between me and the other kitchen staff.
Things we noticed between shopping in the US vs. shopping in Canada, everything in the US comes in a plastic container, including eggs. Eggs in Canada come in paper for the most part. I was having to deal with far more trash this weekend than I do in a whole week in Canada. This was frustrating, as the nearest trash can from my kitchen was across the corner of the square. I had to think about what I needed to be doing for the day before the site opened, so that I could deal with trash.

Things worked surprisingly well for the weekend, considering that many of us have never been in service to others, and the officers are modern people, not used to being served. We all had to find our footing in the experience. Pierre and I have had far more experience in running a larger household of people, and were able to bring much needed material culture to the event, but still, we found we were running out of much needed items to be able to the job really well.

In a perfect world, the fort would be set up with enough material culture to house and feed up to a dozen officers and their wives. That's a lot of material culture! And that can be expensive, but bear with me.
It would have made for a broader interpretive experience to be able to have clean table linens and napkins for each meal, for each table. Preferably ones that completely cover the tables. The laundresses could then be tasked to wash linens for the officer's quarters. Place settings, including all cutlery, glassware, and hot beverage cups for all officers would have made everyone's lives easier. I would have also benefitted from extra service wares, such as platters, bowls, serving spoons, sauce containers and the like. Depending on the scenario, these could all be matching service and dinnerware, or could be mis-matched and cobbled together, depending on who is occupying the Fort. Having a properly laid out butler's pantry cupboard so that the steward can quickly take stock and issue kit would be helpful, and create another interpretive experience.

Many of our officers had no idea they would actually be served for the weekend, and did not even have their own dining kit, as they are more used to eating with their hands, on the fly, as they look after their horses, take part in interpretation scenarios, and are generally run off their feet. In a perfect world, each officer would have staff to look after their horses, other staff to look after their personal requirements, wait staff, and the like. As our head steward for the weekend, Andrew Warren mentioned, he would love to eventually see more staff than officers. This will require a great deal of team work to prepare for, as the officers will also have to groom their staff for the horses, so that those people fully understand how to deal with horse and tack, freeing up the officers for other, more genteel pursuits.
Staff members themselves also might need a crash course in how to serve. We are so used to, in our modern lives, to not intrude in others lives and spaces. We tend to stand back and wait until we are asked to help... and then the people being served are used to looking after themselves and not asking for help. This leads to gaps in interpretive experiences that we could be filling.

Just imagine...

The fort opens, and guests are allowed to watch the officer or his lady being dressed by their personal attendants. Another 'wait' servant holds a plate of food for the person being dressed, removes the food back to the kitchen, knows how their officer/lady takes their tea/coffee, in what cup. Serves that cup upon waking, if need be...can you imagine what it would be like to serve someone coffee and breakfast in bed? Many lady's of this station would not be up and dressed at 6am, like we are used to, but may not be fully dressed until almost noon. Banyans and wrapping gowns in fine fabrics for those members of our interpretation unit portraying officers would be a lovely visual experience.

The table is laid for the noon meal, which is one of the places where we could explain the differences between the food prepared for the officers, vs. food prepared for the troops, right down to how it is served. A table laid out with linen table cloths, napkins, candle sticks, tiles for under the candlesticks, beeswax candles instead of tallow. A sommelier in charge of wines and spirits. Wait staff to serve food, remove dinnerware, glassware. Off to one side, a table laid out with stemware, a bowl for washing/rinsing glassware. The officers enter and have their frock coats removed by their personal attendants, and are dressed in their banyans. Hats are replaced with smoking caps.

Throughout all of this experience, an interpreter stationed at each room (officer's quarters, dining room, kitchen), to explain to the public what is going on, to allow for the interpreters who are doing the 'living history' to do their jobs without interruption.

Can you imagine? What an experience that would be, for everyone. Fully immersive for the people portraying the characters; fourth wall, voyeuristic experience for the visitor. This would require extensive preplanning though. But it could be a fun experience for all of us. One that I am willing to work on myself, to help create a better experience for the visitor for next time.

Hopefully, we will get to do this again. Pierre and I have never worked so hard, with such big grins on our faces before. If Ticonderoga asked me back this next weekend, we would be there, in a heartbeat.
a quiet moment between services, May 2018. This has to be one of the finest hearths I have ever seen and worked on.


  1. You have some fantastic ideas for future events laid out here, Kelly. I hope you share them with the Fort staff for consideration. I look forward to our next attempt at this scenario to be even better than this one.

    1. I'm hoping to add some new things to our own gear this year to help with the 'dream scenario'. It was so much fun, working so hard with everyone. I hope we get to do it again soon.

  2. I would love to know more about period food storage - I, too, am frustrated with the ridiculous volume so common to modern packaging! Do you have any resources I could pursue to further educate myself on the topic?

    1. hello JC,
      The Material Culture Resource centre has some great slide shows on all sorts of common household goods. I would start there. Crossing the border, I often have to cross with packaged goods, and transfer them over to period containers first thing, so I am not having to deal with trash. If I am attending an event in Canada, it is easier, because I can make many more things at home and bypass modern packaging entirely. It is remarkable easy to make things from scratch at home, and often costs far less than storebought.
      Best of luck!