A feast with a side of history

Open house displays Carroll family's holiday traditions in the 18th century

December 09, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

The kitchen at Mount Clare, the Colonial mansion of Charles Carroll the Barrister in Southwest Baltimore, was, on the one hand, a modern foodie's dream - airy, spacious and chock-full of locally grown, organic, hormone-free meat, fish, eggs and vegetables.

But there were some down sides. Those vegetables, this time of year, would be limited to carrots, onions and other roots waiting to be exhumed from the dirt floor of the cellar. And the meat, larded for as long as three years in casks of salt, would look about as succulent as a piece of petrified wood.

"It's not so good roasted," said food historian Andrea Priest, as she hoisted a hunk of ham, hard as rock and dusty white from the salt. "But put it in a soup or stew, it's fine."

Mount Clare, the circa-1760 home of one of Maryland's most prominent Colonial families, is decked out for the holidays this time of year, with the family's finest china laid out on the dining table.

As a drum-and-fife corps and carolers greeted visitors yesterday, Priest bustled around the kitchen, showing visitors how the Carroll family (or, rather, its servants) would prepare a holiday feast. As a re-enactor, she speaks as if she were actually an 18th-century cook.

For starters, she noted, Christmas wouldn't have been a big deal. "Christmas is not a big holiday in Colonial or even 19th-century America, because it's English, and we don't really like them," Priest explained.

Charles Carroll the Barrister called for American independence, after all. And his relative Charles Carroll of Carrollton was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Still, Priest said, they would have had a better meal than ordinary - probably a fresh piece of meat and vegetables.

The cook roasted meat on a spit in a metal drum placed in the kitchen hearth. One side was open to the fire, and the inside was made of shiny material that reflected heat on all sides of the meat.

Salted meats were the rule on most days, she said. A week or two before it was to be eaten, servants would remove the meat from the salt and rehydrate it in fresh water.

Priest made a few side dishes to display yesterday - all Mrs. Carroll's recipes - including stewed carrots in a primitive bechamel sauce; an onion ragout made with mustard, chicken stock, flour and butter; and broccoli and cauliflower, also in a white sauce. (Roux, the sauce base made by whisking flour into melted butter, was big back then, Priest said.)

Most of the food would have come from the plantation's gardens and livestock, but Baltimore, by virtue of its status as a port city, had access to imported foods as well.

That's how Mrs. Carroll (the former Margaret Tilghman of Tilghman Island) was able to make the dessert Priest replicated yesterday: lemon blancmange. The custard-like confection takes the juice and zest of two lemons, which in those days would have cost about 10 cents apiece - that's $10 in today's money.

One element of the culinary demonstration wasn't completely authentic: the kitchen itself. Although it is a good replica, the real Mount Clare kitchen, like most in that day, was in a separate building away from the house, according to Jane D. Woltereck, the museum's director.

The current kitchen is in a wing that was added to the home in the early 20th century, part of a cycle of expansion and contraction that the home has gone through for hundreds of years.

There were two reasons for relegating kitchens to outbuildings: A blazing fireplace in the middle of the house would have been hot and dangerous. And working in a hearth brings the cook - and her flammable skirts - precariously close to the flames, Priest said.

That's why the Mount Clare kitchen has two tools unfamiliar to the modern cook hanging next to the door. One is a bucket of water to put out stray fires. The other is a sack to grab what's worth grabbing - in case the bucket doesn't work.

andy.green@baltsun.com

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