Getting a taste for star-spangled dining
Defenders' Day weekend events include re-enactments of the era's cooking, too
Ranger and re-enactor Genna White of Upper Marlboro lets students from Church Creek Middle School smell dried pork like that eaten around 1812 on Friday, Sept. 9, 2011 at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. (Steve Ruark, Special to The Baltimore Sun / September 13, 2011)
But that's what the citizen-soldiers and federal forces defending Fort McHenry were doing in September 1814, when they weren't wolfing down their dinner at the twilight's last gleaming or trying to enjoy some quiet table conversation with the bombs bursting in air.
Those quaint dining traditions are re-created every September on the grounds of Fort McHenry as part of its Star-Spangled Weekend celebration. Each year, some 150 re-enactors of the War of 1812 come from as far away as Canada to encamp on the grounds of the national historic site, experiencing, as authentically as possible, the Sept. 12 bombardment that inspired Francis Scott Key's famous poem.
Demonstrations and activities at the fort have long included flag-folding, musket demonstrations, and cannon-firings. In recent years, the park's staff, working with a group of park volunteers called the Fort McHenry Guard, has begun folding more scenes of everyday life into not only the Defenders' Day weekend activities but also the regular visitor programming at the National Historic Site. It's one thing to re-create, down to the thread color, a Corps of Artillery uniform; it's another to reproduce the meals prepared for and eaten by the men who wore it.
"Food is the one place where we all meet," says Wendy Alexander, a citizen volunteer who helps coordinate the weekend's food and cooking demonstrations. "Seeing what people ate long ago is a way to meet them across time." Alexander's interest in so-called "period cooking" began, she says, by "finding an early 19th-century cookbook, picking out a recipe, and giving it a try."
Cecilia Davoli, another citizen volunteer, says that "while only some of our visitors have the honor/privilege of serving in the armed forces, all visitors have personal experience with eating. … They see the parallel with their own lives, and compare what we are doing 1814-style with how things are done today." Military buffs won't leave the food demonstrations hungry, though. "The Battle of Baltimore was won because of food," Vince Vaise, the fort's chief of interpretation, says to a group of fort visitors, explaining that the British only had enough rations for three days of battle.
Eating like a Baltimorean of 1814 isn't as bad as you might think. Even in the middle of a war, residents of the new nation's third-largest city were eating fairly well. Ham was plentiful — it was usually roaming the streets outside your door. Bacon wasn't a trend — it was a staple. And everyone's favorite snack food, oysters, were there for the taking — all you had to do was wade into the water and help yourself.
Baltimore in 1814 had many taverns like the one adjacent to Fort McHenry owned by a widow named Mrs. Schwartzaeur. Her tavern stood there from the late 1770s to the 1830s. Baltimoreans ate well in the early 19th century, and, like us, they liked to eat around other people. They did so standing up at market stalls or in taverns and inns, which also served as shelter for travelers or boarders.
Perennial favorites of the tavern table were pepper pot soup, a Philadelphia specialty, and beefsteak pies. There was the occasional food trend, or neat new thing, though. Alexander says that ice cream had started surging in popularity, showing up at the Madison's second inaugural ball in 1813. Nutmeg had become wildly popular. "Each diner might have his own nutmeg grater," Alexander says.
Recipes, or receipts, as they were then known, were not like those of today, says Alexander. There were no measurements or temperatures, just a list of ingredients and basic assembly guidelines. Cooks operated by instinct and by vigilant attention to their own fires.
She brings a visitor to the Tavern Tent, which during the weekend encampment stood in for the Schwartzauer Tavern, a gathering place for soldiers and civilians. On the day before the big gathering, rangers and volunteers were welcoming thousands of Maryland schoolchildren.
Laid out on a table, a ham looks recognizably like a ham, and a raw chicken is identifiable as a chicken. Hard bread, which would be known in the Civil War as hard tack, is more of a curiosity. "These were the protein bars of their time," Genna White, a ranger with the park, tells a group of students from Church Creek Elementary School in Belknap. "The holes were for insects to crawl into. Instant protein."
Alexander brings a visitor a sample of blancmange, a recipe she's recently adapted from the Monticello cookbook. It's a gelatinized almond cream, a cousin to the panna cotta. Served with Alexander's own raspberry sauce, it could pass muster in any good Baltimore restaurant.
These are good times for historians and re-enactors of the War of 1812, which is enjoying some unaccustomed time in the spotlight during its bicentennial. It's going to keep getting better. Still to come, the 200th anniversary of the September 1814 bombardment.
Alexander is hoping to interest Baltimore's best chefs to join in the bicentennial celebrations. "I would love to have an early 19th-century cook-off," she says.
Maybe one of them could try to reproduce what was Vaise said was a favorite dish of Dolley Madison's — oyster ice cream.