FEEDING THE MUSE: Cooking Early American Style

photo-1With Thanksgiving just around the corner, and all the feasting that entails, I wonder, what do you do to feed your creative muse? Perhaps you draw or quilt or knit. I’ve done all of the above, but for the last several years, I’ve also fed my muse by traveling back in time. My interest in time travel was propelled by a middle grade novel I was working on several years ago. Set in late eighteenth century Pennsylvania, my protagonist lived on the frontier of her day. Eager to experience daily life in her era, as much as is possible in the early twenty-first century, I trained as a docent at our local living history museum. Now I volunteer there in several ways, but my favorite duty is cooking over the open hearth.

On regularly scheduled Sundays through out the school year, a small team of cooks take turns cooking late 18th/early 19th century style using authentic cookware and recipes. I’ve prepared fish stew, roast rabbit, scalloped potatoes and even tried baking traditional chess pie in the dutch oven. Nothing transports me back in time better than feeling the icy chill of winter seep in through those old windows while simultaneously sensing the searing heat of the fire; or smelling savory chicken roasting in the reflector oven and hearing the gurgle of lentil soup simmering in a big kettle.

Strangely, cooking early American style also transports me to the present. The smells, extreme temperatures, smoke, and raw wonder of cooking everything from scratch heighten my sense of living now to the fullest. Indeed, that sense is magnified with each peeling of a potato or teary chopping of an onion, with each pungent simmer of lentil stew or savory sizzling of chicken fat cooking by the fire.

So, even though I set my novel project aside years ago, I still look forward to the Sundays when I cook at the museum. I find that each all-from-scratch experience enriches my writing by super-charging my senses with a freshness and intensity that I hope permeates my writing in vivid, multi-sensory ways.

Happy Thanksgiving, all, and don’t forget to feed your creative muse this week!

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18 thoughts on “FEEDING THE MUSE: Cooking Early American Style

  1. How fun to learn this about you! I think you could get some good picture book ideas, too, from being at this historical place. There’s a folk village here that’s sort of the same kind of thing. I’m always hoping to get inspired, understand the past more, and be able to add more sensory details like you mentioned.

  2. Laura, Sounds like so much fun! And how exciting for you to actually partake in the experience! Hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.

  3. That sounds like such a neat thing to do! Though I’m convinced I’d make some horrible food, lol! Also, I really like my electric mixer… 😉

  4. My heart skipped a beat when I glimpsed the photograph^… Is that her kitchen, I thought?
    Cooking at the Museum- there’s a book title right there!

    I think cooking in those kitchens was more about making food edible than about making it fancy and tantalizing, as we try to do now. A good reminder, when I make the Thanksgiving meal every year, that it is plain fare, not an exotic dressing up of old staples. It’s also the most economical menu for a crowd, when you keep it traditional.

  5. Laura, I felt a bit confused, too, about where you could be! lol It’s a great pic and I love the story behind it 🙂 There’s something about doing things the old-fashioned way without electricity and modern appliances that’s very appealing (not that I like to spend too much time in the kitchen lol).

    While doing research, I heard about the BBC series, but also heard about these:

    Oprah Visits Colonial House (a PBS series). I loved watching this:

    http://vimeo.com/2811969

    Here’s what came up with the google search on “Colonial House”:

    http://tinyurl.com/n75orux

    And you also might enjoy reading Leila Sales’ book PAST PERFECT. I REALLY enjoyed it and its setting is at a re-enactment village 😀

    I’m glad your research brought something so wonderful and satisfying into your life 🙂

  6. How interesting. Who eats the meals you work so hard to create? If you need a volunteer . . . 🙂 The picture is lovey. I first thought you were at home and that had me wondering where in the world you lived. 🙂 Thanks for the story. Makes me think how I get my muse going every day. I think I must pass on the old-fashioned cooking since my present day cooking is not that great. Edible, but not great. 🙂

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