Beating biscuits like Banneker: Catonsville park brings history to life

Bread baked in an outdoor clay oven, on bricks heated by a fire. Johnnycakes made of home-ground cornmeal, spread flat and cooked over an open hearth. Biscuits made light and fluffy, not with yeast but with 1,500 swings of an ax.

That was the menu not for an 18th-century farmstead, but for a group at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum that gathered Feb. 13 to learn how Benjamin Banneker lived by doing what Reed Hellman calls “experiential archaeology.”

Led by Hellman and Mike Vealey, who call themselves “amateur food historians,” the group cooked food using the tools and ingredients believed to have been available to Banneker, a free African American who lived in the 1700s and helped survey the borders of the District of Columbia.

The food program, held monthly, is one of many ways visitors can learn about Banneker’s life at the park, which encompasses part of Banneker’s 100-acre homestead, where he was born in 1731 and where he lived until his death in 1806.

The Feb. 13 program, held for people who volunteer and work at the museum, was one of many ways southwest area residents are recalling history during February, which is Black History Month.

Louis Diggs, a historian who has spent more than two decades documenting African-American history in Baltimore County, said that Catonsville’s historically black communities are a vital part of the county’s story — one worth preserving and cherishing.

“I want so badly for our children to know their history,” Diggs said.

The Banneker Museum in Oella kicked off its 20-year anniversary during Black History Month with an event honoring African Americans who served in war. Julian Jones, the Baltimore County’s first black County Council chair, received a citation at the Feb. 10 event.

The museum, which holds artifacts excavated in an archaeological dig of the homestead as well as information and memorabilia from Banneker’s life and work, opened its doors in 1998. The site on which the 142-acre park sits was rediscovered and excavated in the 1980s.

Park director Winny Tan said the anniversary will feature multiple events in the lead-up to June, the month the museum opened. On April 21, the park will hold a “STEAM Celebration,” an acronym for “Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts/Design and Math.” Banneker, Tan said, was a well-rounded and self-educated man, famous for everything from math to astronomy.

That same day, the park will open a new exhibit: a “story trail,” in conjunction with the library, to promote literacy and the outdoors by placing story panels along a trail.

Other upcoming events to celebrate the anniversary include a speaker night, a gala, a planetarium show and an interfaith service, Tan said.

For Hellman and Vealey, who host monthly events called “What’s Cookin’ Mr. Banneker?,” making the food that Banneker would have made is the best way to connect with Banneker's history.

The next iterations of the event are scheduled for noon March 17 and April 14.

“So much of history is involved with food,” Hellman said. “Food is the driver of history.” Why, for instance, did Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first travel around the earth, Hellman asks? He answers himself: “Black pepper.”

For two years, the two have performed interactive cooking demonstrations in a small log cabin built to replicate Banneker’s home and in a large, round clay oven outside.

The historical cooking, both said, was Hellman’s brainchild, something he took an interest in while writing a column on culinary history.

From the cast-iron pots to the wood for the fire, the men and other park employees and volunteers treat each historical detail with painstaking precision.

Though Banneker left few clues as to his diet, Hellman said they can make assumptions about what foods were available to him based on his location and class.

“We know the circles he moved in, we know what foods were available, we know his possessions,” Hellman said. “He was near the Patapsco, so he was probably eating a lot of fish.” And, because Maryland had contact with the world at that point, he was probably eating spices.

Willa Banks, director of education and curatorial affairs, said that the archaeological dig around the foundations of Banneker’s cabin uncovered clues as to how he ate and stored his food, such as pottery shards. The museum displays shards alongside reconstructions Banks said were made by potters at Baltimore Clayworks.

Cooking in 18th-century style presents challenges today that Banneker would not have had.

The wooden bucket, for instance, works perfectly when it is used daily and kept full of water — the wood swells, sealing any cracks between the boards. When it dries out, however, as it does between monthly cooking events, it starts to leak.

As Vealey struggled to get a fire going in the clay oven, he said starting fires is a problem Banneker would not have had often either — in the winter, people would not have let the hearth go out.

“The stuff we do was not a concern at the time,” Hellman said. “We have to fake it, we have to make it look like we’ve always been here.”

Vealey demonstrated how to heat the oven by lighting a fire inside it, then scraping out the coals once it was hot to make room for baking.

Vealey's favorite recipe to make in the oven is apple coffin — despite its name, he said, the spiced, apple-filled folded pastry has little to do with cemeteries.

During public demonstrations, the pair do their best to maintain historical accuracy by wearing costumes and using only tools available in the colonial era, such as wooden spoons and cast-iron pots. The plastic tubs the oysters came in, for instance? They are a no-no — Hellman poured them into a clay mug instead.

“Wood is a problem,” Hellman said as the volunteers gathered dogwood logs for the hearth and the oven.

Some woods, he said, burn better than others — many burn quickly and do not get hot enough to cook. The wood that Hellman said was traditionally used, chestnut, no longer grows in Maryland after a blight in the early 1900s wiped out most American chestnuts.

Even that small problem, he said, helps connect participants to the times when people had similar problems — with far higher stakes.

“For them, it was life and death,” Hellman said. “Kids now don’t even remember when Big Macs came in Styrofoam containers.”

That attention to detail can result in the demonstration meals requiring a lot more work than the average meal made in a modern kitchen.

Beaten biscuits, for instance, developed because people did not have easy access to yeast. Chopping the biscuit dough with an ax for a half-hour was the only way chefs of Banneker’s time could get dough to rise, Hellman said. Vealey compared the process, which puts air bubbles into the dough, to carbonation.

Every once in a while, Vealey said, he cheats: On Feb. 13, he brought a modern-day thermometer.

Linda Lombardo, who volunteers at the park two days per week, said Banneker’s story is a “very timely story for us today,” during a period that, she said, is “fraught with racial divisions."

“He achieved great things at a time when the rights of free blacks were being restricted,” Lombardo said. “It’s striking how many people come in and say: ‘Why didn’t I learn about him in school?’”

Tan, the park’s director, said the park gets a lot of interest during Black History Month, as community groups seek to learn more about Banneker’s history.

But Banks, the education director, said Banneker’s contributions go well beyond the month.

“I wouldn’t focus on Black History Month,” she said. “It’s part of American history.”

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