CURRENT HOURS: Closed for touring until May • Open for special programs by reservation

Cast Iron Cooking Showdown

September 30, 2015

Fall is sports season in Iowa. Football, volleyball, and cross country running are all big high school and college sports. The fall puts us all in the spirit for a little friendly competition. On September 12, our museum held our own competition–a Cast Iron Cooking Showdown! Living History Farms has five historic food preparation areas for guests to visit. Staffers in each of those areas were given a basket of 4 ingredients. They each had an hour and a half to use those ingredients to prepare a historically themed main dish and a side plate for our three volunteer judges. The judges then scored the plates based on the historic techniques used, taste, and final presentation. The mystery ingredients for the challenge included butternut squash, apples, pork ribs, and sorghum syrup.

Cooking Showdown

Museum guests were able to observe the cooking phase of the challenge at each historic kitchen as they toured the grounds. The 1700 Ioway Farm staff prepared their dishes over the coals of a fire pit. Site interpreter Melinda explained to guests that apples, pork, and sorghum were not ingredients known to the Ioway in the early 1700s. All of these ingredients were brought by European settlers. Using Ioway cooking techniques, she prepared the “new” ingredients in traditional ways.


The 1850 Pioneer Farm interpreters created their dishes over an open hearth fire as well. They had the advantage of a bricked-in hearth with hooks for hanging cast iron pots and a stone hearth floor for bake kettles.

hearth1850 interpreters

Cooks at the 1900 Horse-powered Farm gathered all of the garden produce that they had handy. Cooking in a late 19th century wood burning stove, staffers pulled the oven shelves out to give more room for cooking in the oven.


Guests became caught up in the competitive spirit—offering to spy on competitors for each kitchen and coming back multiple times to see how dishes were progressing. Guests were also caught up in the judging aspect—asking the kitchens great questions about why they were using certain techniques and how typical the ingredients and flavors would have been for that time period.

The historic kitchens created their dishes at the historic sites and then plated them in our modern Visitor Center building.


Three judges and our moderator tasted and judged each and every dish. The cooks had two minutes to present the dish, reminding judges of how the cooking was done, why the techniques were used, and highlighting any cookbooks or historic references that were being emphasized.

Plates from all the sites were beautifully presented and guests, as well as judges, were impressed with the presentation talks.


1700 Farm staffer Melinda emphasized how the secret ingredients were used in ways that more traditional Ioway ingredients–such as bison, Jerusalem artichoke, maple syrup and wild plums–would have been treated. The pork and squash went into a traditional Ioway stew, along with wild mushrooms, corn and beans, seasoned with wild garlic. The apples were roasted whole in coals in the fire, along with sweet corn in the husks. Blue corn meal was ground and baked in corn husks to create corn bread seasoned with sweet sorghum on top.

judges tasting

1850 Pioneer Farm took full advantage of their hearth and bake kettles. They braised the pork ribs with a sorghum glaze over the fire and served the meat with tomato ketchup—made this summer from tomatoes in the pioneer farm garden. plates

The apples and squash were roasted and seasoned with herbs from the garden. The presentation included a pumpkin from the 1850 farm fields. The judges commented on the bold use of tarragon in the seasonings.


Cooks at the 1875 Tangen Home offered a savory plate and a sweet plate. The main plate included pork ribs seasoned with onions and sage fresh from the garden, alongside a mashed butternut squash.

The squash recipe was an especial judge favorite. Taken from Mrs. Hill’s New Cookbook, 1872, it included butter and cream and a smooth squash puree.


The dessert from the Tangen staff was also a hit. They made doughnuts, with apples in the batter, fried in oil, and glazed with sorghum and sugar frosting.

In 1880, Mrs. Flynn may have had a cook and housekeeper. On this day, however, Flynn Mansion interpreters were happy to do their own cooking and plated their food on reproduction Mulberry colored transfer ware plates.


They presented braised pork ribs rubbed with sorghum, brown sugar and mace, roasted squash and a dessert named “Baked Apple Porcupines” created from a recipe in the 1884 Boston Cooking School Cookbook. The apple was cored, seasoned and baked, then filled with cherry preserves. The outside was frosted and decorated with slivered almonds to make it resemble a porcupine! Oh, those clever Victorians!

The last presentation came from the staff at the 1900 era Farm. Their plates included bacon, onion and sorghum-glazed pork ribs, savory cabbage and apples, and fried potatoes with onion. The 1900 cooks also presented a dessert of squash pie and freshly whipped cream. The puff pastry crust was a recipe from the 1896 White House Cookbook. plates

Our volunteer judges asked the cooks direct questions about whether their techniques were typical of the historical era, why they selected certain herbs and flavors, and about the amount of labor and time that went into each dish. They tasted all of the dishes and their point scores were very close for all of the kitchens.


In the end, the cooks at the 1900 Farm were victorious! The 1900 Farm staff earned 72 out of a possible 75 points for taste, presentation, and historic technique! Judges commented especially on the unique pork rib glaze and the flakiness of the puff pastry in the squash pie.1900 Farm cooks

When the historic kitchen staff demonstrates food preparation during our general visiting season, museum guests are not allowed to share in the food tasting. There are plenty of smells, and sometimes even chances to help peel, mash, knead and even do dishes afterwards—but no tasting. Demonstrations are hard to regulate for food safety and for the amount of guests visiting with us. But, there is a chance to sample some of the wonderful foods coming out of Living History Farms historic kitchens in the winter season!

Historic Dinners Historic Dinners

Visit our website to learn about the historic dining experiences available at the 1900 Farm, the Tangen House, and the Flynn Mansion coming up in the winter months.

Read more posts on the LHF Blog


From Field to Table   In the Kitchen

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