Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Accumulated Knowledge and Interpreting Foodways History

Dear Newbie is excited to have been given a great gift, a reprint of an historic cookbook. She questions if it could be taken to an event for reference, since copying out the recipes is tedious.

Let's consider this question.
Cooking knowledge is a sticky situation due to the nature of how foodways are learned "in real life." Everyone must eat, so from the start everyone has someone in their lives cooking. Recipes are introduced, become trends, become classics, and pass from fashion... or morph into something new as technology changes the way we cook, acquire ingredients, and experiment with substitutions.

Assume an interpretive focus of 1859-1865. In theory, any recipe published or traced to before 1865 should work; but does that accurately reflect the foodways of your portrayal? In many cases, it does not because your portrayal did not gain the sum total of your foodways knowledge in a single dose from a single source.

I'll give an example from my modern life:
A holiday tradition in my family is the breaded fresh ham sandwich. A basic recipe is thin-sliced pork, dipped by turns in cracker crumbs and egg-milk mix, and fried. I learned this dish from my grandmother who used "fresh ham" and saltines crackers, fried in vegetable oil in an electric skillet. When she had news that she and grandpa should reduce salt and canola oil became the new healthy alternative to straight vegetable oil, she switched to no salt saltines and canola oil. My mother thought butter crackers would give a richer flavor, so she used those instead of saltines. I am often unable to find "fresh ham" and must substitute a pork loin. I accommodate a friend with Celiac disease by using gluten free herb crackers akin to butter crackers. I dislike frying because the oil spatters, so I oven fry my breaded "fresh ham." Were I to trace this family recipe back even further than my grandmother, would I find ship's biscuit or bread crumbs for batter, frying in oil or lard or butter?
Were I, my late mother, and my late grandmother to publish cookbooks, we'd each have a very different recipe for this one "classic" dish.

In the mid 19th century, cooking knowledge was similarly acquired. You were taught basics as you grew up that reflect your family and their traditions. Situations such as health or availability caused substitutions that may have changed how your descendants would learn the recipes they watched you make.

So how does that help us judge recipe books for interpretive purposes?
Consider your event goals, not just over-all interpretive strategy that governs how you approach the hobby, but the interpretive goals of each event you attend.
If your goal is a survey of era appropriate recipes for your own edification, then learning several recipes from a book in which the instructions seem clear is an excellent introduction to historic cooking.
If your interpretive goal for the event is to showcase foodways of 186x generally speaking, then you can include a survey of books published in several dates prior to 1865. Showing 1820s & 1830s recipes that have become "classics, 1840s & 1850s recipes that are "family staples," and a few from 1860s that show the "newest trends" and "innovative technology" provides a solid context for the accumulated foodways knowledge of an average person of 186x. In short, bring the book if published 1830-1865.
If your interpretive goal for the event is to "Live as people of 186x for a weekend," then your specific circumstances need to be considered. Take your age and pinpoint the year your portrayal was born if the event date 186x was "today." Pinpoint the years for ages 10, 20, and the years you would have married or begun your own household. Pinpoint the years for major changes in circumstance, such as a big promotion for your husband that requires more fashionable entertaining to maintain "Place" or a season or two after imported goods become scarce. These years will be your targets for which your foodways knowledge would shift. Again, you're separating into three categories: "classics," "family staples," and "fashions, innovations, & substitutions."
I am 42 years old and let's take 1862 as a target date. I would plan my menus to use memorized recipes published 1800-1845 to reflect those I would have learned from watching my female relatives growing up, I might reference a "well loved" reproduced recipe book published circa 1845 for a complex recipe to reflect those that have become family staples I would make every-day, and if entertainment is involved I might include a clearly trending recipe from a reproduction of a barely used 1861 book or 1861 clipping from a magazine.
In short, choose the book carefully based on who you portray.

With a wealth of period cookbooks available online in digital collections and being reproduced by specialty publishers, we're able to think beyond convenience to add depth of knowledge to our portrayals, if we remember that foodways are an accumulation of knowledge and practice rather than created full formed in a single go from a single source.

Online Chronologically Organized Cookbook Collections:
The Feeding America Project
Historic Cookbooks Collection 1800-Civil War
Manuscript Cookbooks Survey

Friday, October 28, 2016

My Menfolk need clothes and I don't have a clue where to begin! Please help!

As a tailor I get this same desperate plea every few weeks on FaceBook. These questions and pleas have inspired blog postings that I expanded into a presentation. Today, I will list the blog posts in an order for making a plan for a Wardrobe Toolbox. Dear Newbie, I assure you, your menfolk need more than just clothes for sharing history; but don't panic, we have a plan for that.

Where do I begin?
You start by assessing the events you plan to do. Remember that military portrayals and civilian portrayals need to look at their events and therefore wardrobes differently.
    Assessing Your Events, and what that can tell you
    A Citizen Considers His Wardrobe

Then proceed with a Starter Pack to get you through the first events. Borrow garments, if you can, while you save up for quality garments. Follow the Starter Pack with an Expansion Pack for the Primary Core. (By this time, I'm using "insider jargon" and you need clarification. Read on.)
    Advice on a Wardrobe Core
    Man's Wardrobe Toolbox

Remember not to stop with clothes. He'll need "stuff" and a means to carry it, and those items can say a lot about his portrayal.
    Shlep Like a Mule
    Portable First Person; Or, The Right Mind, Part 2

But Wolfie, isn't there an easy checklist?
No, not really. Non-military men have so many variables to choose that a checklist is really difficult. The closest I can come is The Best Bet Wardrobe For Men and Older Boys. 

For those in middle age portraying professional class or middle class men, here's special advice for sorting out what is correct attire for which activities.  Stallion Dressed As Colt

And finally, some advice on why "fitting in" is so important to 19th century dressing, and thus, should be likewise in recreating 19th century dressing. The Zen Of Common

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Connection in an isolating age

Effective re-enactors understand that we must form a connection with those with whom we share history. We also lament that fewer people are understanding history, especially the less pleasant aspects. This leads to a more tenuous connection with those who need the connection most.

I interpret history near Washington, D.C. The requested interpreters are young, white men who portray Civil War soldiers. I am not young, male, nor portraying a soldier. Most of the people with whom I am sharing history are not in that demographic either. Are we really making the connections that lead to understanding history?

While I can talk about the Civil War soldier and the battles of the area, they can't "see" the battle from the soldier's perspective from my telling. They can't relate to a young, white, male soldier. They can't "see" themselves 155 years ago. 
To effectively share history, I need to show a different perspective.

When I share about a battle, I share the perspective of a middle aged white woman, a businesswoman, a professional care-giver. The middle aged white women can relate to my perspective. They can "see" what that battle may have been like for them.

A friend is a white man of middle years, a professional man who has worked hard for his settled position and establishing a secure home for his family. The middle aged white men can relate. They can see the choices they may have made through the choices depicted by my friend.

The demographics of the DC area are changing rapidly.
It's one thing for me to include the stories of black Americans in the hospital systems as I speak of women in the hospital systems, that makes a connection with the black citizens of modern DC, albeit tenuous. The connection is that much more strong when my friends who are black Americans tell the stories of the USCT, or the free teacher on her first day, or the enslaved cook who "ain't nobody's mammy!" Suddenly history is not just the story of some white man in a boring book, it's a living, breathing person like them.

With a wealth of immigrants coming to the DC area, I've been working on portrayals of several immigrants. When one of my portrayal shares her fears of leaving all she has known for an uncertain welcome, or wading the paperwork river to citizenship, or trying to make a life amid anti-immigrant hostilities; they can see they are the newest in a long tradition of making America home.

When we share these different perspectives of a battle or of The War in general,  those we share history with can connect. They can "see" themselves 155 years ago; the choices they might have made, the challenges they may have faced, the opinions they may have held because of their experiences. They know where to begin to ask questions and explore experiences, because the interpreter shares mutual challenges. History is more tangible. History makes a connection. History is a Person. One can connect with a Person.


And if you are so inclined, please sign this petition to have a visitors' center and park rangers assigned to the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington D.C. With a Visitors' Center and rangers, this national monument can further the interpretation and connect with DC's and Visitors' experiences of History. Petition.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

I am, I am SuperWoman... or not.

SuperWoman Syndrome

The romantic ideal that women of the past did all the cooking, cleaning, sewing, child-rearing, gardening, entertaining... for their families without resorting to Professionals. Did it perfectly. Did it from scratch. Did it without mistakes. All while passing on the homey values to the next generations.

Were there women who were SuperWoman in the 19th century?
Yes there were. We have Martha Stewart, Rachel Ray, Oprah. 
They had Eliza Leslie, Elizabeth Acton, Miss Beeton, the local woman every woman loves to hate.
Most women, though, were not SuperWoman. They may have made the best pie in the county, but had to hire out their sewing. They may have put the local tailor to shame, but everyone was scared to visit her house until The Girl came by to "help" with cleaning.

Newbies, you do not need to be SuperWoman either.
As a matter of fact, it would be more accurate if you were not.

Almost all women could do the "basics" of cooking, cleaning, sewing, and child-care. They had their focuses too. 

  • If you do not sew, keep the professionals employed. (Most will work long distance and attend lots of events, the better to reach their customers in person.)
  • If you do not cook, make arrangements with someone who does.
  • If you need help at an event with your children, chances are good other mothers will too, so get a co-op play date together.

...and what you tell the Public does not need to be the arrangements you as a re-enactor make for the event.

In many cases, it over-represents SuperWoman for you to tell the Public that you have made as much of your family's clothing as you have. We don't have the same ready access to professionals, ready made shops, and second hand markets, so we have fewer choices. 

I am a tailor. I spend the majority of my time clothing menfolk. Did I make my dress? Yep, sure did. But I look the Public in the eye and say that I employed the local dress-maker... who got a nice frock for her husband in exchange and the transaction was happy on both sides. Does this "hide my light" on my dress-making skills? Yep, and sometimes that is needful to present history as it was instead of stroking the modern pride. Besides, tailoring and dress-making utilize different sewing and patterning skills and knowing one does not mean one knows the other.

We have examples of 19th century women who made the clothing for their family, including tailored garments. In many cases, it was the necessity during the war years that caused women to think "yes, I think I *can* do that." So in post-war years we see many more home-crafters daring to make their own clothing, using professionals less, and professionals using machine work. It's part of the innovations the war years caused on garment manufacture (like standardized sizes in menswear.) Look carefully at those sources and how often the author mentions extended family and neighbors doing household/farm work for her. She's not really SuperWoman either.

In short, though, Dearest Newbies You do NOT need to be SuperWoman to be a re-enactor.

Friday, April 15, 2016

I am the very model of a modern...

Dear Newbie has indulged today in a movie set in our favorite era of history. The movie is set in 1862. The dresses are from fashion plates of 1862. The suits are from cutting plates of 1862. The carriages, traps, buggies are all straight out of the 1862 catalog. The dishes on the table are documented to have been introduced in ...you guessed it... 1862. The action is accompanied by songs published in 1862. The entire scene dates to precisely 1862... so why does it seem so "off"?

The production team has used what we have come to call "Model Year Syndrome." We in re-enacting sometimes do something similar.
Progressive Military will often lament, "He thinks all soldiers were sprung full grown from the head of Mr. Davis in 1861!"

When we look through our recipes, housewares, and well... almost everything but clothes... we often fall into this Model Year Syndrome. We forget that we didn't spring to life full grown in 186x, so sometimes our knowledge needs to be outdated for 186x.

Take our favorite food recipes. Many will rely on recipes and cook books published in the 1850s and 1860s. This is a great start, because we can at least document the recipe as being available to some citizens in 186x. But we haven't considered where our portrayal would have learned that recipe. Would our portrayal have learned that recipe from a book or would she have learned it from watching her mother, grandmother, or another female relative? 
For my portrayals, I am roughly 40 years old and would have begun a household in the mid 1840s. I tend to rely on recipe books from 1800-1845 to learn what my portrayal would have been making in the 1860s. 

I likewise look to housewares with introduction dates between 1800-1850 to outfit my home. my portrayal would not have bought all her household goods at the same time, nor would they have needed replacement at the same time. So, a mix of "Model Years" is appropriate.

This can also be applied to "common knowledge" like home medicine, household cleaning techniques, handwriting styles, a whole host of everyday knowledge. Who you are and how you would have learned what you know are major factors in how out-dated or up-to-date your knowledge is on a subject.

Sure, it's cool to show off the "latest, greatest, most scientific" Widget of 186x to the people we share history with, but our portrayals may have had to be content dreaming of how the Widget would make their lives better, rather than owning one themselves. 
Don't forget, too, that just because something is available does not mean it is appropriate for everyone in every situation. 

So, Dear Newbie, enjoy a movie that mixes clothes from 1860 with a buggy from 1853 with recipes from 1812 on dishes from 1850 accompanied by music published in 1861. Ah! Much better! So real! 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Stallion Dressed As Colt

We live in a culture obsessed with being young. All the supposedly great things in life are associated with being young. Youth offers open possibility, healthful physical activity, vibrant creativity, unbound optimism, and faith in the hopefulness of the future. "Gather Ye Rosebuds while ye may" and all that.
There is the other end of the spectrum, being Old. Becoming Old is to be avoided at all costs. Old People are rigid in their opinions, tied to their traditions, afraid of change, feeble in their movements, dull in their conversations.
There seem to be only two options, you are either Young or Old.

Many re-enactors are taught to measure the success of their "Look" against a photograph from the era. The closer they come to matching that photograph, the more successful their portrayal is deemed. There is a major pitfall in this method for the menfolk. The men who portray soldiers are looking at photographs of young men. The average enlisted soldier of the Civil War era was 22 years of age. The average age of officers was 26 years of age. Theaverage age of the men portraying those soldiers and officers is older, often much older. They still hold their Look up to photographs to compare.

     So by the time the re-enactor portraying a soldier makes the decision to add a civilian portrayal, he's looked at hundreds of photographs of men in their late teens and twenties.
When searching out a photograph of a civilian to emulate, they gravitate towards photographs of the young men who look like soldiers out of uniform.


When they are presented with a photograph of a man in his late-middle years he looks stodgy, formal, Old... they are not that Old. They can't use that photo of an Old man because they are still young, active, vibrant men... just with responsibilities, family, civic activism, occupational experience... but they aren't "Old".

In the mid 19th century, Society took a different view of the middle years. They still encouraged the Young to enjoy a time of learning responsibility with a safety net and they still eshewed becoming Old as a burden to be avoided as long as possible. There was also a time in the middle.

Men in their middle years had the best of both Young and Old. They had the energy, optimism, and vibrancy of youth tempered with the authority, experience, and sense to enact change. Men in their middle years are the foundation of mid 19th century family and society. They are the civic leaders who bring their communities through War. They are the business leaders who bring trade, commerce, industry, technology, and social justice into the modern world.
In short, that stodgy man with dark hair, impressive beard, and a frock coat is not Old. He's an active, vibrant man affecting change on his world... just like you, Dear Newbie.

So, how does this paragon of Middle Age dress?
He chooses his attire based on the tasks of the day, just like you do. What "Look" does he need his attire to convey?
 If the answer is authority, responsibility, and stability; he will choose "business dress." For most of the 19th century, "business dress" meant a frock coat.

The fashions of frock coats changed up over the 19th century. A man in his late 40s in the 1860s would have lived through the introduction of a frock coat as the standard daywear, courted women in the frock coat at it's tightest, gone to War in a loosening frock, and luxuriated in the further loosening post-war styles... all before Ft. Sumter was fired upon. A frock coat was no more uncomfortable to him than a suitcoat is to a modern man. Perhaps not his favorite, but worn when appropriate because it IS the appropriate thing to wear in the situation.

In photo collections of university classes, the Professor is usually the one in the frock coat. While the scholars may show up in a square paletot of the latest fashionable cut, the professor would get a meeting with the Dean about "professional image" if he tried it.
The physician wears a frock coat because he needs his patients to have trust in his knowledge, learning, and techniques. He, too, needs to convey a seriousness, stability, and trustworthiness that comes from "professional" dress.
The lawyer, too, presents his cases in court and meets with clients in professional dress. The respectability, trustworthiness, and professionalism is conveyed through "professional" dress.

Were we to see these same men or any man of similar occupation at home on Sunday afternoon, or enjoying the Ag Fair or a base ball game, or having a drink with friends in the tavern; he may very well choose a loose paletot. Should he take leave of his practice to volunteer with the US Sanitary Commission or take the family on an educational Tour of Europe, again the loose paletot is the practical choice and any tailor worth his price would see he chooses conservatively fashionable style elements.
Consider blue jeans today. Almost all men have a pair of blue jeans (or several). The professor, physician, and lawyer wear their blue jeans to watch the ball game, go out with friends, play tourist, and volunteer on the weekends. Rarely will they wear blue jeans to teach a class, meet patients, present cases. Even then, a nod to "professional dress" is made or he faces a censure from a superior or mentor.
So too are blue jeans worn by men of all ages, but not necessarily the same style. The young men in "skinny" cuts differ from the men in middle years in "relaxed" or "classic" cuts, and differ too from working men in "boot cut" and "Western" cut.

The paletot we learn from Mr. DeVere on page 82 of his Handbook of Practical Cutting on the Center Point System (1866 edition) is,
 "...one of the most elegant styles of overcoat, and the one which is best calculated to suit all figures, all classes, and all ages. It may be cut of every degree of fullness:
* there is the close-fitting style, so well calculated to display the graceful figure of youth and early manhood;
*there is the medium style, which, while it displays the figure to the best advantage, combines that ease and comfort desired by those who have reached maturity,
*we have the square-cut style, so generally preferred by men who are given to athletic sports, from the great facility it gives for muscular action;
*and lastly there are the looser-fitting styles, so admirably adapted for men of middle age, who have arrived at a certain degree of corpulency."

There are some styles that were worn by men of almost all ages, but the context of when, under what conditions, helps sort out the "spot on like a photograph" from a near miss.
When looking at photographs to choose a style... make sure several men of your actual age are wearing that style and pay attention to the situations under which that style is used in the 19th century.