Cooking 1840s' style: fresh foods, long hours


February 19, 1992|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

Life was difficult for Sarah, a free black woman working as the single servant in a middle-class family in 1840s Baltimore. Long before the common use of refrigeration or even electricity, Sarah would have risen each morning at 4 a.m. to build up the fire in the basement kitchen and to begin breakfast preparations for a household of eight.

Her name might or might not have been Sarah. But there is proof, from old census and tax records that a young woman, between 16 and 20, worked at what is now known as the 1840 House, one of the Baltimore City Life Museum sites. The records show that Sarah was black and free. The records also show that a younger black girl lived in the house as well. Museum staff theorize that she was Sarah's daughter.

The occupants of the 1840 House come alive because of the museum's interpretation of how that family and Sarah lived.

"We know a lot about how people in general lived during that time, though we don't know a lot about specific individuals," says Sue Latini, one of the museum's volunteers and an expert in mid-19th century foods and food preparation.

For example, Mrs. Latini believes that Sarah slept on a mattress stuffed with corn husks, pulled up to the fireplace during long winter months. She can not prove it, but it seems plausible because poor people, both black and white, slept on these kind of mattresses during that time. It also seems logical to assume that Sarah would have moved her bed to the fireplace to stay warm and to ensure that the fire stayed lit, in readiness for the next day's meals.

Sarah and her daily routine play a big part in Mrs. Latini's "Food from the South" lecture. The talk and hands-on demonstration will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The talk and hands-on demonstration is in honor of Black History Month and will stress the role of Southern cooking, with its African-American heritage, in the lives of Baltimore residents during the mid-19th century.

The lecture costs $18 and requires reservations. Call 396-3279. There are many other hands-on cooking demonstrations during the year, and interested parties can ask the museum for a brochure.

The 1840 House is located in museum row, near the Inner Harbor, in an area once known as Jonestown. The 1840 House, where Sarah toiled, has been meticulously restored and furnished to simulate life in 1840s Baltimore when Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson and their three daughters resided there. An apprentice to Mr. Hutchinson, a wheelwright, also lived in the house. The furnishings are based on a surviving inventory from that time and is an excellent example of how a middle-class family lived in Baltimore about 150 years ago.

Mrs. Latini, who makes her own period clothing, has been a museum volunteer since the museum opened in 1985. She chose to work in the restored basement kitchen, teaching herself about foods and cooking materials from the mid-19th century. She says she feels a special kinship with Sarah who would have spent most of her long, busy days in the basement kitchen.

Food preparation was very labor-intensive. "If the family wanted a chicken dinner, they would have had to buy or raise a chicken, kill it, clean it and pluck out its feathers before cooking it," Mrs. Latini says.

Shopping for food was a daily chore because there were few ways to store food. Sarah was probably responsible for buying the food, either from farmers driving their carts through the streets or from nearby Marsh Market. The Brokerage is now on that site.

During the summer, Sarah would have had to work extra hard, according to Mrs. Latini. She would have been responsible for preserving food by drying, pickling or salting foods. She would also have put up jams and jellies, using fresh fruits.

At some time during the day, Sarah would have had to walk two blocks to the neighborhood well, returning with two heavy wooden buckets full of water. She would have emptied the water into a large barrel, returning to the well until the barrel was full. Water would then have been dipped out of the barrel for cooking, cleaning and bathing.

The wooden buckets are heavy even when empty. Museum goers are encouraged to pick up the buckets and yoke, similar to what Sarah might have used. It is this hands-on participation that makes the museum so interesting and helps historical figures, such as Sarah live once more.

Participants in Mrs. Latini's workshops do more than sample mid-19th century cuisine. Museum goers, limited usually to a group of 12, are paired off and given responsibility for preparing various dishes using cooking techniques from the 1840s.

Students, for example, get to cook over an open fire, as Sarah would have done. Regulating temperature in a fireplace is difficult. Pots for slow foods, such as stews, would have hung from a metal rack suspended inside the fireplace. Foods that needed to cook faster, for example bread, could be prepared in various cast-iron pots and placed in the fireplace, sitting in the coals, or resting on trivets.

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