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Happy birthday, Harriet: Cooking up a storm at Riversdale

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Posted on: April 14, 2022

by: Michael Purdie

Using an open hearth and cast iron skillets, volunteers with the Riversdale House Museum Kitchen Guild demonstrated their expertise at a March 13 open house honoring Harriet Tubman, whose 200th birthday was three days prior. 

Natalie Pappas works on a recipe from “The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro” by the National Council of Negro Women.
Photo Credit: Michael Purdie

“Food is a common denominator among people. Regardless of the time period, we all have to sit down to a meal,” Michelle Kretsch, a member of the Kitchen Guild, wrote in an email. “The open houses and the cooking demonstrations as a whole allow people to see how food was prepared [and] what were people putting on their table and how – depending on your socioeconomic condition, location or race, that meal might be different.” Kretsch founded the Riversdale Kitchen Guild in 2001.

The open house featured meals that were typical of those cooked in slave quarters during the 1800s. According to Kretsch, guild members used recipes inspired by archaeological discoveries. Guild cooks referenced small fish bones found during excavations at old plantations, for example, as they created a recipe for the fish chowder they prepared during the open house. The menu on March 13 included a meal of cornfield beans, potatoes and salt pork; Aunt Harriet’s Favorite Dish, which was cornbread with salt pork; and gingerbread, which Tubman would sell to Union soldiers for extra money.

  This was Riversdale’s first open house since the start of the pandemic, and the community was glad to be welcomed back. “I have been waiting for a few years to participate in such an event, and even though it was very chilly, I learned a few things about cooking over an open hearth. I was also reminded of the old adage: A woman’s work is never done,” Mary Cook wrote in an email. “I love such events because they transport me back in time. They’re also a wonderful reminder as to all the luxuries we have today.”

Staying true to early 19th century cooking techniques, the guild’s cooks eyeballed some measurements and used a sand hourglass to time their baking, but the meals they prepared were surprisingly familiar. “I think if people look at cookbooks from the early American period, they would be surprised at how similar the recipes are to what we see in modern cookbooks and websites: A curry recipe in an 1824 cookbook, the variety of recipes for vegetables, [and] the use of herbs and spices,” Kretsch remarked. 

The Kitchen Guild’s cooks — there are currently seven — largely rely on seasonal and locally sourced ingredients, including produce from the museum’s interpretive gardens, though snagging a pint of milk from the grocer may be necessary from time to time. “Farmers Markets are becoming more commonplace in communities and I think that helps people understand their local area as well as the global marketplace for food when you look at what is available in the supermarkets,” Kretsch wrote.

The Riversdale House Museum is located on the site of a former slave plantation; according to the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission, the house now on this site was constructed in the early 1800s. The Riversdale House Museum plans to hold guided hours on Fridays and Sundays starting at noon. And the Kitchen Guild is aiming to hold monthly demonstrations into the fall. For more information and to register for events, go to riversdale.org.

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