Having raised a household of always-hungry children, the thought of living at a time when meal prep meant endless hours over a stone hearth and wood stove sounds nearly as terrifying as, say, being sent back to 16th century Europe where they burned redheads like me at the stake for suspected witchery. But shifting perspectives on that…. the chance to participate in the making of an old-ways meal could be looked at as a sort of feminist vigil, engendering gratitude and appreciation for the thousands of women who had no choice but to cook this way. Teasing that out a little further….with the right bunch of equally-curious friends along–the experience could be, well, enjoyable. Here’s how: If you make a group reservation for a “Hearthside Dinner” at the historic Wade House in Greenbush, WI, volunteers who’ve mastered the art of hearth & wood cookery, will guide you and your friends through making and eating an 1860s meal.
A little history: Wade House, a stagecoach hotel which opened in 1850, halfway between Sheboygan and Fond du Lac, was deeded to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1953. The site expanded to include more property and buildings over the years, including the 2013-completed Wade House Visitor Center which also houses the Wesley Young horse-drawn carriage museum. For the themed dinners, docents in 19th century dress, welcome groups to the hotel and tap room to make a midday meal like those proprietor Betsey Wade would have served her guests in stagecoach days. To give you a feel for what you’ll experience, LRF did a Q&A with Kathy Dimig, Lead Interpreter, Wade House Historic Site.
KD: We’ve done them for groups between 10 and 20 people, but 18 seems to be the ideal number. With less than 10 people, there aren’t enough cooks to prepare all of the dishes, and with more than 20, it’s too crowded. We have several set dates that are open to individuals coming to form a group with other individuals, or, you can make a special reservation for your group of 10 to 20 on a date that we work out with you. Call to reserve for your group, or e-mail us.
LRF: You serve a set dinner menu including squash soup, pork roast, red cabbage & apples, glazed carrots, mashed turnips, cranberry muffins, bread pudding, cider cake, cider and coffee. What helped you decide what dishes to include?
KD: The menu is based on items that would have been served during the 19th century, the space and cookware we have available, and the timing/cooking of each dish.
LRF: To prepare the meal as it would have been made in the 1860s, you use both a wood cooking stove and fireplace, correct? How did you familiarize yourself with the process?
KD: Yes, we use both a Star brand wood stove, and the fireplace. I learned by watching and working with someone who was very proficient in this kind of cooking. With the stove, a lot of trial and error goes in to it. The biggest difference compared with cooking with a modern-day stove is that you need constantly to be aware of what your fire is doing. You can’t just turn it on—it takes a good hour to 1 ½ hours to bring the temperature up to a nice baking level. And all along, you need to monitor the fire and add more wood as necessary. Also, you have to pay attention to the nature of the fire/heat: the firebox is directly under the front part of the stove, so the front is “high”, the back “medium” and the section above the oven, “low”
LRF: Jeez. That sounds really difficult. What types of dishes are the easiest to prepare on the stove?
KD: It’s not really that one thing is easier and another more difficult…it’s more a matter of timing. For example, if I want to make coffee, I would put the water on to boil right away, before I did anything else, because it’s amazing how long it takes to come to a boil. Or another example: if I want to sauté onions for the squash soup, that goes fairly quickly, but to actually cook the squash (or the turnips or the carrots) in the liquid takes quite a long time.
KD: The fireplace is brick, with a crane that swings out so that you can more easily hang a pot on a hook and the swing it back over the fire. It has a nice wide hearth to facilitate Dutch oven cooking. We make the carrots and cabbage and apples by hanging pots from the crane over the fire. The bread pudding is made in a Dutch oven on the hearth by pulling out hot coals from the fire onto the hearth, setting the Dutch oven on top of the coals, and then shoveling hot coals onto the recessed lid of the Dutch oven. The pork roast is made on a spit in the “tin kitchen” (a reflector oven) which is also placed on the hearth of the fire.
LRF: YIKES! So when my group comes, we’re all going to do this together?
KD: Yes, you do it all! We are just available to assist, teach and answer questions. You will be chopping the vegetables, mixing the batter for the cranberry muffins and cider cake, boiling the water for the coffee, setting the table, washing the dishes.
LRF: So, everybody’s good with that? Or, do people mutiny at certain jobs?
KD: I think the guests like the food prep. As they chop and mix, they are getting to know each other and it’s always very lively. I’m not sure there is a least favorite job, but we have a dry sink, which means there is no drain, so when we change the dish or rinse water, we have to take the dish pan outside to dump it, which is done many times over the course of the afternoon.
LRF: What’s the most popular dish?
KD: Most people like the carrots and the squash soup, and the cranberry muffins are always a hit.