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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Two spllinters, three burns, and a great educaiton

Please welcome my guest,KB Inglee, with a really fascinating contribution to my potluck posts. KB writes short historical mystery fiction and is currently at work on a collection of stories set between 1870 and 1890. She works at two living history museums where she learns what she needs for her writing. The staff historians and an archaeologist are founts of information. She tends a flock of heritage sheep and works a water-powered gristmill that was built in 1704. Her joy is showing off the sheep, the mill and the miller's house to school kids. For more pictures check out: Newlin Grist Mill at and Greenbank Mill and Philips Farm at Leave her a message.

 "Joseph's Captivity," her story, set in Colonial America, is a combination of Bible story and myth about colonial life. Joseph is a grumpy hero who undervalues what he has until he is about to lose it. You can find it at:

 KB lives in Wilmington, Delaware with her family, one dog, four cats, three birds and four turtles. She has been a member of Sisters in Crime, and two chapters, Delaware Valley and Guppies, for ages.

 Two Splinters, Three Burns and a Great Education

First off let me tell you that I am not a cook. I can’t light and maintain a fire, nor can I get the lumps out of cake batter.

Never let it be said that this failure ever held me back from doing anything historical. For years I taught kids how to make Jumbles (snickerdoodles) in a Dutch oven and soap over an open fire. I believe that I can’t write historical fiction successfully unless I have done what my characters do and live as they have lived. I actually believe that no one can. I often find errors in historical fiction that wouldn’t be there if the authors had spent a little time in the century they are writing about.

I was delighted when the mill where I worked added a wood-fired oven. I cherished the opportunity to help fire it up (see above about lighting fires), to clean it out for baking and especially to eat anything baked in it. If you are going to bake at nine in the morning you have to start firing it at five. I am an early riser so this was no problem for me.

All of us who used the oven got together to experiment. We brought our favorite recipes (or to be historically accurate, receipts) from home, along with all the equipment we needed. We mixed up whatever we chose to make and cooked it in the oven. I chose a spice cake that my protagonist Emily makes for special occasions (c 1890). I brought a leg of lamb as well. When everything was done we feasted. The food was spectacular. Maybe it was because we had labored long and hard in the cold, because we all had burns and splinters, or because we were in good company. While all of those are true, it may have been simply that food cooked in a wood-fired oven tastes better.

Making cornmeal mush is great fun. You mix cornmeal, salt and water, then sit by the fire and stir it constantly for two to four hours until it is done. I learned something unexpected from doing it. I was wearing jeans and the fire heated the cloth that was right next to my skin to unbearable. I had to keep shifting sides to avoid real burns. When I cook at the mill, I wear a petticoat which doesn’t touch my skin and so I am protected from the heat. Who knew?

I once trekked with Lewis and Clark. I was the head cook for this weekend adventure. The kids learned surveying and mapping, how to keep a journal, do cyphers, and how to keep a camp. The biggest eye-opener for us all was that they had to barter for food. There was nothing in the camp kitchen, so if they didn’t get it we didn’t eat. The trader was kind enough to remind them that food tastes better with salt. He explained the other reasons we use salt in cooking. I’m sure they wouldn’t have thought to get salt, especially since it cost one knife. I'm also sure they would have complained about the taste.

I spend a lot of time trying to convince people that food doesn’t start out wrapped in plastic. When I tell kids that the cute fluffy white animals in the pasture are both meat and wool sheep, they are appalled. Most of them have never eaten lamb or mutton; most of them don’t believe food lives in
pastures and is cute. On the same Lewis and Clark adventure we had to butcher chickens. Every one of the kids was excited and volunteered to help. When it actually came down to doing harm to the birds, or worse yet putting your hand inside to get the guts out, they were nowhere to be found. They did show up at the dinner table.

Me? Cook? Never! I do experimental culinary archeology.

This is my own version of Lobscouse. I believe the copy I got from another museum interpreter was based on the receipt from Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: Which It's a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels, by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman.

I like the spice mixture so much that I make it up in quantity and keep a jar around. This stew is much better the second day.


2 lbs. beef cut in 2 inch cubes                           

2 lbs. smoked ham

1 bay leaf                                                        

6 lg. potatoes   

3 ½ cups ship's biscuit (around 8 oz.)   

½ tsp. ground cardamom

1 tsp. ground allspice                          

1 tsp. mace      


4 lg. onions

4 leeks                                                            

1 tsp. ground nutmeg

½ tsp. ground cloves                                        

dash cayenne

freshly ground pepper

I leave out the ground cardamom. The original calls for ship's biscuit. You can actually buy or you can get or make yourself. I use stale bread crumbs or saltines.

[Editor’s note: ship biscuits are hard, non-perishable biscuits good for long sea voyages; also known as hardtack.)

Place the meat in a pot with bay leaf and cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook, covered, over medium-low heat until tender (2 ½ to 3 hours). Remove the meat from the pot and discard the bay leaf. Skim and reserve the slush (fat). Reserve 3 cups of the cooking liquid.

(If you are using smoked ham instead of corned pork, the texture will be improved by pre-cooking it with the beef for an hour.)

Trim the meat and cut it into ¼ inch dice. Peel the onions and potatoes and cut them into ¼ inch dice. Put the potatoes in cold water to cover.

Remove the root tips and the tough green ends of the leeks. Cut the remaining portion in quarters, lengthwise, and wash thoroughly under running water, separating the layers to remove any grit. Cut into ¼ inch slices.

Place the Ships’ Biscuit in a plastic bag and pound it into coarse crumbs.

Heat 6 Tbsp. of slush in a large frying pan over high heat. Add the meat and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to brown (10 – 15 minutes). Remove the meat from the pan and set aside, draining as much fat as possible back into the pan.

Sauté the onions over medium heat in the same pan (adding a little more slush--I use bacon fat if needed) until they start to soften. Add the leeks and cook until the onions start to brown. Drain the potatoes, add to the onion mixture, and cook, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add the browned meat. Cover and cook over medium-low heat until the potatoes are almost tender (5 - 10 minutes).

Stir in the pounded biscuit and 1 ½ cups of the reserved cooking liquid. Add the spices, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Cover and cook another five minutes.

 Aunt Caddie's Cake

From Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer, 1896, as updated in 1962. Miss Farmer is considered the mother of the level measure.

Sift together

            2 cups flour

            1 tsp cinnamon

            1 tsp powdered cloves

            ½ tsp allspice

            ½ tsp salt

            1 tsp baking soda

            2 tsp baking powder

Beat two eggs until thick and lemon colored

Beat into the eggs

            1 cup sugar

            2 tablespoons molasses

Beat alternately into the egg mixture the flour mixture and 1 cup sour milk or buttermilk

Stir in lightly 2/3 cup melted shortening or oil

Bake in a moderate wood-fired oven 'til done, or in a modern oven set at 375 degrees for 25 minutes. Chocolate frosting makes it perfect.

[Editor’s note: No sour milk on hand? Stir on tsp. vinegar into a cup of milk.]

Cranberry Corn Bread

I have a friend who sends me a pound or so of cranberries from a local bog every year and I send him two pounds of corn meal ground at the 1704 water-owered gristmill where I work. This is a pleasant combination of both gifts.

About one cup of cranberries, cleaned and sorted

About half a cup of molasses

About half cup of water

Any standard cornbread recipe

Boil the cranberries in the molasses adding enough water to keep it from caramelizing. Cook until the berries have popped, and it has thickened. Stir the sweetened cranberries into the cornbread mixture once it is in the pan and bake as directed.

If you find errors in these recipes, remember I already told you I am not a cook.



  1. I love this post, KB! And the term "experimental culinary archeology" - perfect. Now to get my own hands on a copy of Fanny Farmer, and to find a place in Massachusetts that reenacts 1888 living, besides the Lowell Mill museums.

  2. I grew up with a wood stove in the kitchen (In the living room too, to heat the house). When I was a senior in high school it was my job to make bread every week for the family. I started with cooking a potato and using the mashed potato plus water it was cooked in. Three loaves of bread, or two loaves plus biscuits.

    I think I made bread about twice after that - once was for a pregnant friend who wasn't handling food well at the time. She said it helped.

    Of course, when we baked bread or cakes, the oven temperature was of more concern than stove top cooking. And various parts of the stove top were different temperatures according to how far they were from the actual fire. (This was in the 1940s.)

  3. I have spent the last three days teaching colonial cloth manufacturing to 300 fifth graders and haven't; had much time to check for comments. Notice I wasn't teaching the cooking unit.
    I think I got my original Fanny Farmer from Dover reprints. There are comments in ink in the margins so it was taken from someone's kitchen.
    Edith, if you would like to spend a weekend at The Norlins in Livermore Maine, let me know and I will go with you. They do weekend for education students in UMaine. I had the best time there.
    Norma, my grandmother had a wood fired iron stove in her kitchen and an icebox (also in the 1940s). Maybe that is why I got so interested in history.