A little “sensory history” & volunteer time at Harpers Ferry

Posted on December 4, 2012 by

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We see; we touch; we hear… but can we smell and taste history as much?

Granted, it might be a good thing that we don’t always smell and taste what might have been encountered in the mid-19th century. There are exceptions, however… and certainly, the smells and tastes associated with food rank at the top.

The window looking into the main floor of Roeder's Confectionery, in Harpers Ferry.

The window looking into the main floor of Roeder’s Confectionery, in Harpers Ferry.

So, with this in mind… for the second time in the past two months, I donned period civilian clothing and volunteered some time at Harpers Ferry.

This weekend was of particular interest to me considering my lineage to confectioners (an art form/business not one limited to women, by the way)… not to mention that I had the opportunity to share the experience with two of my daughters (also in period clothing… and yes, they were eager participants as well). In our four hours in the basement kitchen of the confectionery, we spent more time learning than we did interpreting… and that’s perfectly O.K. considering we’re still pretty new at this, and we were there to learn in order to make our future interpretation efforts better.

Obviously, the time spent was rewarding in many ways, and regarding food…

… we started by making marzipan…

My girls forming marzipan, with historic foodways expert, Carol Anderson, on the left.

My girls forming marzipan, with historic foodways expert, Carol Anderson, on the left.

marzipan

Followed by breaking out the “election cake” (formerly known as a “muster cake”)…

electioncake

Though we didn’t have time enough to put almond icing on the cake, we did enjoy it as a side to our hot chocolate, which brewed on the top of the cast iron cook stove most of the day.

Then, of course, there was another art of the confectioner… such as this sugar-formed three-masted schooner which served as a centerpiece…

schooner

While we weren’t actually involved in forming these sugar-based centerpieces, we watched and learned about the process…

Some of the sugar molds used in the process... a rooster, stag, and horse. The bowl on the right, by the way, is full of candied orange peel.

Some of the sugar forms used in the process… a rooster, stag, and horse. The bowl on the right, by the way, is full of candied orange peel.

After setting on the cook stove for some time, this is a shot of liquid sugar being poured into one of the forms.

After setting on the cook stove for some time, this is a shot of liquid sugar being poured into one of the forms.

Sugar stag and rooster, with half of the form removed

Sugar stag and rooster, with half of the form removed

Stag and rooster, standing after having cooled

Stag and rooster, standing after having cooled

Incidentally, that device you see just behind the rooster a bit… with what appear to be nails… that was used to spin sugar, such as what is being down below by my girls…

girlssugarspin

Spun sugar on the handles of the two wooden spoons…

spunsugar

Sugar was also spun around a stack of tarts on a plate…

spunsugarandtarts

Without a doubt, the experience was fantastic.

I’ve reenacted several times (as a matter of fact, for the first time, 31 years ago this past February)… and done living histories in uniform, but… this time I had the chance to see history from a different angle, in period civilian clothing. While doing the work of a confectioner, I didn’t lose the sense of the significance of place (in lower town, Harpers Ferry), but in that foodways were also a critical part of life, the history of the place became a backdrop to the experience of history.

Good stuff.

Me, sitting next to the wood cook stove, in the basement kitchen of Roeder's Confectionery.

Me, sitting next to the wood cook stove, in the basement kitchen of Roeder’s Confectionery.

 

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