Have you ever thought about what your ideal kitchen would be if you could afford anything you want? Most people I know who enjoy cooking could quickly rattle off a long list of items they would instantly add if given the chance. Most would be efficiency-improvement items, such as appliances that make food preparation faster or automatic cooking devices that make specialized cooking easier without a lot of supervision.
Even looking back at 18th and 19th century kitchens, you would find much of the same thinking going into what is in the kitchen. You would want the things you need close at hand. You would love to find items that make the cooking process faster and easier.
I began to wonder what our ancestors might have listed given a chance to design their perfect kitchen. Their lists obviously would not have included microwaves or convection ovens or espresso makers. So what kinds of things would be important to them?
I asked Nancy, Tavern keeper here at Landis Valley. Here is her take on what might have shown up in early Pennsylvania German kitchen.
The Germans who lived here in south central Pennsylvania were very frugal and their kitchens changed very slowly. Their attitude typically was, “If it was good enough for my mother, then it’s good enough for me.” Kitchen items were often passed from one generation to the next. The truth is that kitchens had evolved very little over the previous couple of centuries. There were, however, a number of items that would have been high on the list for what was handy for a cook in this German community during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
One of these items was a gumbis pot. Gumbis was a favorite meal made by the Pennsylvania Germans in the early and mid-18th century. It was usually made on bread-baking day while the cook was waiting for bread dough to rise. It was made by layering sausage, onion, cabbage, and apple in multiple layers in a crockery pot.
You then add some liquid, like beer, cider, or broth. Place the gumbis pot on a trivet over a small pile of coals. Test to see if it is beginning to heat up by touching the outside of the pot. When it is hot remove the trivet and nestle the gumbis pot in the coals. Slowly shovel coals around the pot. It will slowly cook for hours until done. This was the “crock pot”in the 18th century.
Another item that would be on almost every cook’s wish list would be a mouse trap. Rodents were commonly found in our ancestors’ kitchens looking for a free meal. In the picture shown is a clever mouse trap that can be seen at the Tavern kitchen at Landis Valley. It utilizes heavy wooden blocks that drop on unsuspecting mice as they go for the bait placed inside.
Something every good cook would have on her list back then would be a toaster. Since the cooking was done in the fireplace with coals piled in various spots for each item being cooked, this ingenious item held the bread close to the fire. You then turn the head with your toe. This one can be seen demonstrated in the Tavern kitchen.
All of the many items shown on this page would have been considered very desirable tools in a colonial era kitchen. The funny thing is that what we have now is, for the most part, simply higher tech versions of the same things that were used then.
The biggest difference is the most obvious one: a stove vs. a fireplace. The center of the kitchen back in the 18th and much of the 19th centuries was the fireplace. Where we use a fireplace more for visual entertainment with a single fire built in the middle, this was a large open hearth that could be used for various cooking operations at the same time. Where we have multiple “burners” on our stoves, you would simply pile coals in various places as needed.
A large oven can be found outside the Tavern. This oven can handle baking bread, cakes, pies, cookies and roasting anything that you would do in a modern oven. The fire needs to burn for several hours to heat the oven so that you can bake everything you would need. Baking for the Tavern would be done twice a week to feed all of the guests that would stay there. Be sure to ask the Tavern kitchen staff about how our oven works. You will probably be very happy that you have a nice, simple automatic oven. The second biggest difference you might notice about the 18th century kitchen is the lack of cold storage. No refrigerator. No freezer. That is why most households at that time had a variety of longer-term storage methods available on their property, including a smokehouse, root cellars below ground level, and a spring house. Even though you may look at all these items and think how happy you are to have all the conveniences you now have, notice how similar the uses for things were compared to what we have now. The problems to solve were the same.
My wife and I both love cooking, and occasionally I find myself wishing that we had a few more of the more items found only in much older kitchens. For instance, every time I go into an older home that has been updated, I drool over the walk-in fireplace. But then I snap back to reality and realize that I would be the one who had to clean it. So I guess that particular fantasy can stay in dreamland for a while longer.
Come visit the Tavern and see what it took to be an 18th century cook.
Nancy also occasionally gives classes in cooking and baking here at Landis Valley Village & Museum. Be sure to keep an eye out for upcoming events, where you can experience 18th century hands on cooking.