A SLICE OF SOUTHERN COOKING Cooking 1840s' style: fresh foods, long hours


Life was difficult for Sarah, a free black woman working as the single servant in a middle-class family in 1840s Baltimore. Long before the common use of refrigeration or even electricity, Sarah would have risen each morning at 4 a.m. to build up the fire in the basement kitchen and to begin breakfast preparations for a household of eight.

Her name might or might not have been Sarah. But there is proof, from old census and tax records that a young woman, between 16 and 20, worked at what is now known as the 1840 House, one of the Baltimore City Life Museum sites. The records show that Sarah was black and free. The records also show that a younger black girl lived in the house as well. Museum staff theorize that she was Sarah's daughter.

The occupants of the 1840 House come alive because of the museum's interpretation of how that family and Sarah lived.

"We know a lot about how people in general lived during that time, though we don't know a lot about specific individuals," says Sue Latini, one of the museum's volunteers and an expert in mid-19th century foods and food preparation.

For example, Mrs. Latini believes that Sarah slept on a mattress stuffed with corn husks, pulled up to the fireplace during long winter months. She can not prove it, but it seems plausible because poor people, both black and white, slept on these kind of mattresses during that time. It also seems logical to assume that Sarah would have moved her bed to the fireplace to stay warm and to ensure that the fire stayed lit, in readiness for the next day's meals.

Sarah and her daily routine play a big part in Mrs. Latini's "Food from the South" lecture. The talk and hands-on demonstration will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The talk and hands-on demonstration is in honor of Black History Month and will stress the role of Southern cooking, with its African-American heritage, in the lives of Baltimore residents during the mid-19th century.

The lecture costs $18 and requires reservations. Call 396-3279. There are many other hands-on cooking demonstrations during the year, and interested parties can ask the museum for a brochure.

The 1840 House is located in museum row, near the Inner Harbor, in an area once known as Jonestown. The 1840 House, where Sarah toiled, has been meticulously restored and furnished to simulate life in 1840s Baltimore when Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson and their three daughters resided there. An apprentice to Mr. Hutchinson, a wheelwright, also lived in the house. The furnishings are based on a surviving inventory from that time and is an excellent example of how a middle-class family lived in Baltimore about 150 years ago.

Mrs. Latini, who makes her own period clothing, has been a museum volunteer since the museum opened in 1985. She chose to work in the restored basement kitchen, teaching herself about foods and cooking materials from the mid-19th century. She says she feels a special kinship with Sarah who would have spent most of her long, busy days in the basement kitchen.

Food preparation was very labor-intensive. "If the family wanted a chicken dinner, they would have had to buy or raise a chicken, kill it, clean it and pluck out its feathers before cooking it," Mrs. Latini says.

Shopping for food was a daily chore because there were few ways to store food. Sarah was probably responsible for buying the food, either from farmers driving their carts through the streets or from nearby Marsh Market. The Brokerage is now on that site.

During the summer, Sarah would have had to work extra hard, according to Mrs. Latini. She would have been responsible for preserving food by drying, pickling or salting foods. She would also have put up jams and jellies, using fresh fruits.

At some time during the day, Sarah would have had to walk two blocks to the neighborhood well, returning with two heavy wooden buckets full of water. She would have emptied the water into a large barrel, returning to the well until the barrel was full. Water would then have been dipped out of the barrel for cooking, cleaning and bathing.

The wooden buckets are heavy even when empty. Museum goers are encouraged to pick up the buckets and yoke, similar to what Sarah might have used. It is this hands-on participation that makes the museum so interesting and helps historical figures, such as Sarah live once more.

Participants in Mrs. Latini's workshops do more than sample mid-19th century cuisine. Museum goers, limited usually to a group of 12, are paired off and given responsibility for preparing various dishes using cooking techniques from the 1840s.

Students, for example, get to cook over an open fire, as Sarah would have done. Regulating temperature in a fireplace is difficult. Pots for slow foods, such as stews, would have hung from a metal rack suspended inside the fireplace. Foods that needed to cook faster, for example bread, could be prepared in various cast-iron pots and placed in the fireplace, sitting in the coals, or resting on trivets.

Mrs. Latini's recipes are representative of foods eaten in the 1840s. She researches the recipes using old cookbooks and also studying the foods available in Baltimore at that time. She makes a few concessions to the 20th century. Baking powder, for example, is used to make bread instead of the traditional yeast. "This is because of time constraints; we can only do so much during our lectures," she says.

Sarah made corn bread every day, but purchased white bread from one of the city's many bakeries, Mrs. Latini says. Residents of 1840 Baltimore also ate a lot of pork. Mrs. Latini says most families kept pigs which were allowed to wander in the streets. This is not quite as unsanitary as it sounds, says Mrs. Latini, because the pigs ate garbage. Baltimore would not have a garbage cart to haul garbage away until later in the century.

Most families ate their biggest meal at midday. Mr. Hutchinson, who worked nearby at what is now Scarlett Place, would have come home each day.

Sarah would not have taken meals with the family but she probably ate identical foods, Mrs. Latini says.

The evening meal was a smaller affair, quite probably leftovers, Mrs. Latini says. The household went to bed early because firewood and candles were very expensive for a middle-class family.

Mrs. Latini's 1840s menu includes a chicken rubbed with sage and cooked over an open flame, corn bread made with cracklings (the crispy bits of pork fat left over after the fat is rendered into lard) and collards with pig tails. Most of these dishes are too time-consuming for modern-day cooks. She recommends preparing your favorite roasted chicken recipe with lots of sage for an authentic touch. Any good corn bread, a staple of mid-18th century life, could be served. Finally, flavor your "mess" of collards with a readily available ham hock.

Here are some easier recipes that will be served at Mrs. Latini's Saturday class.

Black-eyed peas and ham hocks

1 pound dried black-eyed peas

2 pounds ham hocks

2 chopped onions

1 small bay leaf

1 dried red pepper pod

Wash peas. Cover with water and soak overnight. The next day, boil meat for 30 minutes in water to cover. Drain peas. Add peas and remaining ingredients to ham hocks. Cover and simmer until tender, about 2 hours. Discard bay leaf and red pepper.

Buttermilk pie

3 eggs, separated

2 cups sugar

1/2 cup butter

4 tablespoons flour

2 cups buttermilk

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 recipe plain pastry, below

Cream together egg yolks, sugar and butter. Add flour and beat. Stir in buttermilk and lemon juice. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into buttermilk mixture. Add nutmeg and pour into pie shell, made from plain pastry recipe below. Bake in 300-degree oven until firm, about 30 minutes.

If baking in a hearth, place in heated Dutch oven over pile of coals. Bank coals on top of oven. Check after 20 minutes.

Plain pastry

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup lard or shortening

4 tablespoons cold water

Sift flour with salt. Add lard and blend with two knives, mixing lightly with fork as water is gradually added. Divide dough in half, reserving half for another use. Roll out dough 1/8 -inch thick and line 9-inch pie plate.

Backbone and dumplings Makes about 12 dumplings.

3 pounds of pork backbone (neck bones can be substituted)

dried red pepper pod

2 cups flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup shortening


Cut pork backbone into bite-size pieces and cook in water to cover until tender. Keep covered with a lid. Season to taste with salt and pepper after one hour of cooking. Add more red pepper if desired. Place dumplings on top of meat, cover and cook for about 15 minutes.

To make dumplings, sift together dry ingredients. With pastry blender or fingers, cut in shortening. Gradually stir in enough milk to make a soft dough that can be taken up and dropped by spoonfuls.

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