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Food – the ultimate simple pleasure

cherriesAugust 10, 2018

At the height of the summer in Iowa, one of our greatest simple pleasures is seasonal eating. Lettuces, strawberries, summer squash, cherries, cucumbers, sweet corn, good tomatoes—it boggles the mind and fills our plates. Living History Farms celebrates this Midwestern food culture by demonstrating historic ways of growing, preparing and preserving food. Interpreters enjoy pulling the first tender lettuces out of the garden in June, picking cherries off the 1900 Farm historic variety cherry trees in July, making fresh cucumbers into sandwiches on home-made bread and butter, and slicing heritage tomatoes to mix with spicy onions in a vinegar salad in August. Historians call this the study of “foodways”.

lhf staff member holding secret ingredient for food challenge

Our museum interpreters call it a guilty, simple pleasure. Why is it a guilty pleasure? We aren’t allowed to share! Summer rules prohibit serving the public out of historic kitchen areas, but as museum staffers we get to sample the recipes we demonstrate and indulge in some historic food goodness. In an effort to share the joy, interpreters actively discuss and demonstrate as much of the food preparation as they possibly can. And some days, we up the ante a bit.

Two Saturdays during the summer, staff take their cooking to the next level in a “secret ingredient” food challenge. All the historic kitchen staffers receive a secret ingredient in the morning. They have two and a half hours to prepare that ingredient in the most historically accurate, creative way that they can based on the time period their kitchen represents. Pre-selected judges travel between the sites, tasting the final recipes. During our first food challenge of the season on June 31, the secret ingredient was corn, including corn meal, fresh sweet corn, and hominy.

Our Foodways Program sponsor, Hy-Vee was a great resource for locally sourced corn products and secret ingredient bags.

So what did our interpreters do?

Our Ioway Farm interpreters prepared unleavened corn cakes. Staffers served the bread along with wild greens dressed with wild berries. A minted chicken, in homage to prairie chicken or grouse found on Iowa’s grasslands in 1700, brought the meal together.

1700 meal

At the 1850 Farm, Erin–a winner of several past challenges, prepared a corn pudding and fried hominy fritters topped with bacon.

1850 meal

The 1900 Farm staff offered up corn tarts with a lovely berry syrup, creamy corn chowder and fried hominy cakes.

flynn food judge

Winning the day’s competition, Tangen House offered tomato-corn soup, corn and potato hash, and hominy bread. This inspired the judges into a spirited discussion over whether or not tomatoes belong in corn chowder. It was decided that, since the Tangen family is not represented as being from New England, tomatoes were acceptable. And quite tasty!

tangen food challenge

Later in July, our historical interpreter intern class was challenged to bake a cake in the style of their historic kitchen using tart cherries from the 1900 Farm orchard. Ioway interpreter, Noah, baked soft corn dumplings served in maple cherry sauce.

1700 Farm intern

The 1850 Pioneer Farm intern, Melody, offered sweet cherry cupcakes baked in transferware cups, adapting a recipe from The American Frugal Housewife.

1850 intern

At the 1900 Farm, Megan chose a delicious recipe from the White House cookbook for two layer chocolate cherry cake.

1900 intern

Wren at the Flynn Mansion baked spicy, dark molasses and cherry fruit cake—which the judges agreed they would make themselves at home around Christmas.

Flynn intern

In this challenge, Tangen House staff won a second time! Intern Catherine prepared a cardamom cherry custard filled jelly roll cake, suggesting the Norwegian roots of the Tangen family background.

Tangen intern

Both days, museum guests were very jealous that they couldn’t taste the entries themselves. To be fair, we share some recipes for our delicacies.

cornmeal cakeCorn Meal Cakes

Adapted from American Agriculturalist, August 1842.
This will make a small (8”) Dutch oven corn cake.

One pint of Corn meal
1/2 pint of flour
A piece of butter half as large as egg
1/2 teaspoonful of salt
One teacupful of boiling water
One egg
Milk to make the consistency of a batter
3/4 teaspoon saleratus (or 1 teaspoon of baking soda)
Optional: 1/4 cup sugar


Place in a buttered bake kettle and bake until done in the center.


Cup Cake, the Frugal Housewife, 1830.

“Cup cake is about as good as pound cake, and is cheaper. One cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs, well beat together and baked in pans or cups. Bake twenty minutes and no more.” Intern Melody also added a cup of pitted cherries soaked in brandy to her batter before baking.


French Chocolate Cake, the White House Cookbook, 1887.

chocolate cherry cake

“The whites of seven eggs, two cups of sugar, two-thirds of a cup of butter, one cup of milk and three of flour, and three teaspoonfuls of baking powder. The chocolate part of the cake is made just the same, only use the yolks of the eggs with a cup of grated chocolate stirred into it. Bake it in layers—the layers being light (white) and dark (chocolate); then spread a custard between them, which is made with two eggs, one pint of milk, and one-half cup of sugar, one tablespoonful of flour or corn-starch; when cool flavor with vanilla, two teaspoonfuls.”

Intern Megan actually used a cherry filling between her chocolate and white layers rather than custard, with more sauce over the top of the cake.

Enjoy the recipes, but if you do want us to do the cooking, come see us this fall! During the fall and winter, our historic kitchens prepare recipes for evening and afternoon meal experiences. Guests can enjoy a special 1900 farm dinner, a 1875 historic dinner at Tangen House, Flynn Mansion dinners or a Flynn Victorian tea program. Programs require advance ticket purchases. Find out more and get tickets for Historic Dinner programs here.

Historic dinnerAs we demonstrate cooking techniques from the past, LHF staffers wonder if food was the same pleasure for our farming ancestors. For the average farming family, daily weeding of crops, care for livestock, and shopping or trading for other ingredients could be quite a chore. Cooking and preservation processes were often labor intensive. Yet, the reward of sitting down to fresh bread, roasted meat, or special desserts made all the work worth it.

John Kenyon a farmer in Jones County, Iowa wrote to friends on Jan 17, 1864. “I do not feel much like writing tonight. I am so full I can scarcely stir without pain. We have been over to Father Ellis’s to eat . . . and the way I played the knife and fork would have done you proud. We had turkey, boiled ham, stuffing, potatoes, onions, pickled tomatoes, green apple pie, mince pie and lots of doughnuts.”

So after all, Brillat-Savarin is likely correct when he wrote: “The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all eras; it mingles with all other pleasures, and remains at last to console us for their departure.”
–Jean Antheleme Brillat-Savarin The Physiology of Taste. 1825.

Read more posts on the LHF Blog


In the Kitchen   Recipes

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