...if you have a backyard and a kitchen, this blog might be for you!

a chronicle of tips and recipes on everything from gardening to canning and baking your produce, even if you're planted in suburbia...in fact, especially if you are planted in suburbia.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Cooking Breakfast...in 1836

Who says homeschool field trips are only fun and educational for the children involved? Nolan and I visited a working village set in the "year of our Lord 1836" at a living history museum called Conner Prairie. Many folks from this area are quite familiar with the place, as school groups visit it daily and in droves through the months of April and May. The gal at the ticket booth told us all about it. "The only thing I get tired of is as they're leaving--they all go into the prairie store and buy harmonicas. Then they all come here to the lobby and play them...simultaneously." But once you leave that lobby and its companion museum hall you enter the world of the 1800's complete with characters who will tell you all about their "lives" in this prairie town.

One of the challenges this time of year, for those who were naturally living "subsistence gardening" lives over 100 years ago, is the lack of fresh garden produce in early to mid-April, when last year's stored produce is waning pretty low. But, a few things are up and growing already. One of them being the asparagus you see here.

A step from the backyard garden into the airy kitchen alongside it finds village cooks preparing typical early spring breakfast fare.

After a little conjuring at this table, an asparagus omelet is ready for fireside frying. According to the chef, all that was needed to create this omelet was egg, fresh asparagus, a little salt and some water. Sounds simple enough... Garden Helper quickly learned, though, that unlike today's challenges, the toughest part of cooking in 1836 was gathering those ingredients: going to the garden for the asparagus, to the chicken coop for the eggs, and worst of all--to the well for the water. He tried to pull up a bucket of water hand-over-hand on the rope and discovered that a bucket of water is very heavy if managed this way. A farmhand told him that cranking up the bucket helps, but that he should consider a visit to a "wealthier" cottage if he wanted to experiment with the easiest well apparatus of all, the well owned by the village rich: a pump well.

Garden Helper took him up on his advice and learned a pump well is indeed the best choice if the money's there to install it. At that house, a different sort of breakfast was cooking, again one dependent on the season's offerings. Candied violets.

Violets were growing everyplace that offered a little shade, but they are very much a spring flower, so this particular dish was very much a spring delicacy.

Garden Helper even had the opportunity to help transfer these sugared violets to a serving plate, while the aroma of fresh ground coffee filled the kitchen. Sugar and coffee were both "rich man" staples only found in this wealthy kitchen, another big difference between an 1836 kitchen and our kitchens today.

The last cottage breakfast stop showed us another option for early spring garden fare: rhubarb bread. While today, we might use a recipe like the one this link provides...


...in days gone by, when the rhubarb reddens up in the garden...

...recipes for breads and pies were taken from books proudly and handily displayed on the mantle by old, practiced cooks. A cook might go the better part of a lifetime collecting just a few books of recipes, not to mention the cooking utensils we'd never consider needing today. For instance, this seasoned cook told a visitor about the lid lifter she had the blacksmith make for her. An iron hook that caught the lid of her baking pan, this lid lifter made it possible for her to take an iron lid covered in coals (see bottom right of pic) off the pan to check the progress of her baked goods. "After all, nothing can bake evenly without heat both above and below, you know."

What a greater appreciation we developed for the ease of modern cooking methods--but also for the simplicity and purity of historic ones.

Happy brunch!


  1. I love Conner Prairie. I usually go once a year, but mostly to the July 4 celebration. If you've never been, it's a must. Thanks for sharing. Good post.

    Cindy Bee

  2. Thanks, Cindy. I'm going to run another one on our visit to the Loom House later in the week.