Throughout our six-week road trip, we encountered many costumed individuals at living history museums. Some looked accurate–and some not so much (I’m thinking about the red-headed pale Native American we saw at one place). This woman sat outside a home at Colonial Williamsburg to gather tourists to view this home. She knew a great deal about the family that owned this home and the work they did on behalf of the American Revolution.
I’ve been interested in living history museums and their costumed citizens for a while. In some ways, this might be the ultimate job–you get to pretend to be someone else and some place else all day everyday. Since I live in my head a lot of the time, it might just suit me. On the other hand, I’d have to go all day everyday without all the comforts of my own time. But is a little discomfort worth it?
I think a bigger question is, do costumed guides help you learn more about the past? It’s nice to see a historical location in its own time–nice to imagine this home or campfire as it was in 1776 but imaging is really all we can do. We can’t go back to the past and see it as it truly was then. We can pretend, which is what living history museums do, but it’s not real.
Maybe what we want is just a sense of the past but without all the realities–the smells, the dirt, the daily grind. Living history museums let us pop into the past for an hour or two and be entertained. Seems like the people who learn the most from these encounters are the costumed individuals; the people who have researched into the past, read about their roles, and studied the social dynamics of the time. And despite their efforts to relay this information, most of it doesn’t stick. But that’s the nature of teaching–the teacher always learns more than the student.
I’ve been dreaming about an earth (or brick) oven similar to this one for a long time. I have a bread baking book that includes instructions for a clay version, and I’ve been looking at Build your Own Earth Oven on Amazon longingly.
This oven is at Colonial Williamsburg at the military encampment. It was cold and quiet the day we were there–the only thing cold in Williamsburg. It was unbearably hot and humid that day, so I’m not surprised that the camp follower didn’t have this oven fired up. I’m not sure if she (the camp follower–probably a soldier’s wife) or one of the soldier cooks would have been in charge of baking bread in an encampment like this circa 1776 but if there had been a full enlistment of soldiers, a lot of bread would have been coming out of this oven.
I’ve been dreaming a lot about building an oven like this, and it’s moving up on my to-do list. Maybe late this fall when the weather finally cools off. Then I could bake bread outside when it turns cold. Of course, I’m already dreaming of pizzas, casseroles, and all the other yummy things that can be baked in a wood-fired oven.
Because I love to cook, I’ve been keen on all the colonial kitchens we’ve traipsed through over the last few weeks. The one at the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg was in full gear the day we were there, despite the high 90s heat and even greater humidity. I sure felt sorry for these cooks working all day around the large fireplace, churning out food that looked iffy, at best. I suppose this is what folks ate in 1770 Virginia, but I wasn’t ready to plunge in. Seems to me, they need a new food stylist.
Reproduction food (is that what you call it?) always has this sort of off-plasticy look to it. Why is that? It certainly didn’t make me want to jump in and try my hand at any recipes, or receipts, as they would have called them.
But if you are more game than I, check out Colonial Williamsburg’s blog about colonial food or the Taste of History videos. We had dinner at Chef Walter Stalb’s City Tavern in Boston and the food looked contemporary and tasted delightful. So perhaps it’s just that the food at living history museums sits around all day and grows pale?