Food heritage highlights

Written by Sarah Heffner on July 10, 2019

Mennonite Heritage Center staff have been exploring and developing a major exhibit on the topic of food, a daily and essential part of our lives. Food touches on creation, celebration and community. Food is also increasingly a concern, as we hear daily news about extreme weather cycles and global strife impacting the production of food and people’s access to adequate food.

Museum exhibits about food have ranged from reproducing nostalgic food themes as a reflection of culture to more participatory programming with hands on learning. There is certainly merit to events like our Apple Butter Frolic which are great fun with the sampling of traditional foods and demonstrations, but such events/exhibits do not always connect the dots between the realities of the hard labor of 18th and 19th century farm families or the loss of prime farm soils to development in our region in the mid-20th century. Working on this exhibit has meant trying to connect some of those dots.

The MHC is fortunate to have expertise from local historians, and wonderful resources and artifacts to use for this exhibit. This blog features some of the collaborations involved with the exhibit.

Hard working people get caffeine

We know that European immigrants brought, along with the family Bible, seeds and vegetables such as carrots, onions, potatoes, turnips, wheat, rye, barley, buckwheat, basic farm hand tools and even livestock. They also learned to use native foods such as squash, beans, game, and berries. Meats included game animals, especially deer and black bear. Corn was used for mush, a staple in the early immigrant’s diet. Coffee, however, was considered a treat.

Historian Alan Keyser, who assisted with research on the 18th century portion of the exhibit, notes that colonial Schwenkfelder minister Christopher Schultz described how those who worked at hard labor got full caffeine while others had a diluted beverage of coffee with barley, wheat or rye.

Schultz put the importance of coffee and caffeine into perspective in a 1769 letter: Much coffee and tea are consumed here in the countryside. There are few houses of our people where it is not used, but some use much more than others. By now some roast barley, wheat or rye with the coffee, which works fairly well. For those involved in hard work, however, such a drink is too light. For weak people and those involved in housework it works fine. [It does not do for] Those of us who are advanced in years, and have by hard work had real experiences. For example; where I live there was nothing but forest in 1742. [Now] you would be aware of and will see fields, meadows, house and farmyard.

I don’t know if my MHC duties would qualify as hard work but I would not want my morning caffeine diluted with barley.

Farmhands (including Alan Keyser on the left) enjoy coffee with noontime dinner at the 2009 Apple Butter Frolic. Of course all bow their heads for grace before the meal.

Inheriting food

Researcher and author Joyce Munro assessed wills and estate inventories for the food exhibit to determine what foods and containers were in 18th century households. Her research shows that a range of foods were stored in various containers in the nooks and crannies of the house — from the cellar to the attic — with bee hives overwintered in the attic and cabbages stored in the cellar and root vegetables under the bed. Not quite the scene of spare furnishings and artifacts that are typically on display in historical homes. Estates provided for widows to have a share of the garden with manure. She was also to have portions of beef, pork and chicken and milk from the family cow. If she remarried, those supplies were often discontinued. The next issue of the MHEP quarterly features an article by Joyce on her research — Joyce has turned facts and estate lists into a compelling story!

An excerpt: …Henry Kolb in 1730 wants Barbara and their seven children to succeed, so he wills everything to her, including the tools of husbandry and his weaver’s loom. Over in Towamencin Gerhard Shrager in 1753 wants son Goshen to have his “Weavers Tools and the Loom.” John Landis in Milford thinks Anne should get his “Still Kettle.” Moreover, she is to live with their son, but if sharing the house and Stove Room “would not be Efforded in Peace and Unity Then a house with a warm Room shall be built & added to my House.” They are to share “one Table, as long as both Parties like it,” and if not. . . another table should be built for Anne! In these few phrases are distilled the essence of an eighteenth-century middle-class farmer’s wish — a son to inherit the plantation and his widow to live out in comfort what they both have worked so hard to bring about….

John Munro, Joyce’s husband, has created two large detailed drawings that illustrate the John Clemens estate of February 1782. The drawings, on display in the exhibit, depict the food stored throughout the house and outbuildings, from six live honey bee hives in the spring house loft where the hired man had to sleep, to the crowded stove-room on the first floor where everything from sweet potatoes to 15 lbs. of dressed hemp to “lumber” (incidentals and debris) were stored with the furnishings.

John & Catherine Clemens’ stove room, Buckingham Township, Bucks County, drawn by John Munro, based on Clemens’ estate inventory. The iron stove that warmed the room during winter is in the center, between two chests.

Farm life photos

Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center is providing images by Winslow Fegley for the exhibit. H. Winslow Fegley (1871-1944), a country storekeeper at Hereford, Pa., traveled extensively through Berks, Lehigh, and Montgomery Counties, PA, and recorded farm life with a remarkable series of photographs. Among the images we are using in the exhibit are Hannah Schultz baking rye bread in her bake oven, cutting apple schnitz trays for drying, and a photo of the beginning of the butchering process after the hog carcass is hung up.

A slide show that will make you hungry

The Goschenhoppen Historians are sharing a mouth-watering slide show on Pennsylvania Dutch foods. The historians received a Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission grant in 2008 to preserve the record of traditional PA Dutch recipes, and master cook Nancy Roan taught Gail Albert how to make the foods and then photographed them for a public presentation. You can sit at the kitchen table in the exhibit and watch images of favorites like Buweschenke (filled noodles that look like overstuffed pierogies), cherry pudding and hickory nut cake.

Hickory nut cake, from the Goschenhoppen Historians slideshow.

You are invited

Food: Our Global Kitchen opened on July 6 and will be on display until January 4, 2020. The exhibit is an exciting project that has large panels with information on our complex and intricate global food systems with themes that include Food Waste, Scarcity & Abundance, Trade, and the Future of Growing. The exhibit is leased from the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

A companion exhibit Food Heritage of Eastern Pennsylvania, produced by the Mennonite Heritage Center, has panels, information and artifacts on our local foodways, beginning with the 17th century Lenape and moving chronologically up to the 21st century. Learn about the foods for a Lenape Gamwing celebration, how the introduction of the wood cook stove in the mid-19th century meant a more diverse menu, and how we can contribute to a more sustainable food system in the 21st century.