Sampling 18th-Century Fare at Shields Tavern
by Mary Miley Theobald
If watching Williamsburg's 18th-century world unfold before your eyes is a marvelous thing, then participating in it is even better. So reasoned the small staff of Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Food Programs when they embarked several years ago on an ambitious project designed to bring a taste of the past to visitors with a culinary curiosity.
The Historic Food Programs is led by Rosemary Brandau, a former teacher with a degree in home economics and summers full of experience in various history museums. She was brought to Colonial Williamsburg nearly 10 years ago to research recipes, ingredients, and cooking processes from the colonial era and incorporate the results into an active hearth cooking program in the Historic Area kitchens.
To the uninitiated it all sounds quite easy: Just get hold of an old cookbook, follow the directions, and voila! An 18th-century concoction. Alas--reality requires far more than that. The best sources for appropriate recipes are cookbooks or "receipt" books known to have been in Williamsburg during the 18th century. Hannah Glasse's 1760 publication The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy is one good example; another is Eliza Smith's The Compleat Housewife of 1742. Evidence shows that both were sold in Williamsburg.
Often the ingredients called for in period recipes are unfamiliar, requiring considerable sleuthing to deduce their true identity. Exactly what are double-refined sugar and grated penny-loaf? And where can they be found today? Some recipes call for a dozen or more eggs, a reminder that our eggs are considerably larger than they were back then, but by how much? And the highly generalized directions presume the reader has had a great deal of cooking experience above and beyond the ability to follow directions. Add "a little white wine and sweet herbs minced small," or "bake them on tin plates in a slack oven til done," while quite clear to the 18th-century reader, seem hopelessly vague today.
When Brandau learned that Colonial Williamsburg was planning to open a fourth tavern in the Historic Area, she saw the opportunity to take this investigative work a step further, right to the dinner plates of the visiting public. She brought her ideas and her deciphered recipes to Chef Edward Swann, Jr., of Shields Tavern who realized their potential at once. Chef Swann wanted "his" new tavern to have its own personality, something special and very different that would distinguish it from any other restaurant in Williamsburg. While most chefs worried that using 20th-century methods on 18th-century recipes would produce inedible results, he harbored no such fears.
Chef Swann and Ms. Brandau began work on translating what she had learned about 18th-century dishes to a modern commercial kitchen. For three months they squeezed in time amidst their regular duties to work out proportions of ingredients and adjust for modern equipment, cooking temperatures, and times, all the while retaining the flavor and texture of the original recipes. "I use an electric egg beater instead of a birch twig whisk but the food is authentic," insists Swann.
Together they worked up a core of 18th-century foods that offers the visitor an authentic taste of typical colonial fare. They called it Shields Sampler, a sampling of five or six of these recipes on one plate. It has become the single most popular item on the menu and the magnet that draws visitors to Shields again and again.
But the difference between dining today and dining in the 18th century extends far beyond the food. Brandau and her staff began fantasizing about hosting historically accurate colonial-style dinners, with the correct table settings, table manners, and serving customs of the period in addition to the authentically prepared foods and beverages. Embarking upon an interdisciplinary approach to the study of food, they pulled together existing research and assistance from throughout the Foundation.
With significant help from historian Patricia Gibbs, whose research on colonial dining habits, manners, and customs provided the historical underpinnings for the program, and from the curator of exhibition buildings Betty Leviner and her assistant Jan Gilliam, whose knowledge of table settings, dishes, and table linens was instrumental, the plan began to take shape. From period diaries, letters, and handbooks for training servants they learned that drinks were not set on the table by the server but presented to each guest, ladies first, on a serving tray, and that the diners passed their plates and served one another from the dish nearest them. They discovered that white tablecloths were changed after the first and second courses, but that the dessert course was served on the bare table. Details about the particular varieties of foods consumed in Williamsburg came from Foundation archaeologists who contributed information from recent excavations.
Again drawing on the talents of Chef Swann, his kitchen staff, and Shields Tavern servers, they embarked upon a program without parallel in this country. Akin to the medieval banquets given in Irish castles for travelers who want to experience the Middle Ages, Williamsburg's 18th-century meal is an event that transports guests back in time.
After successfully testing their research and ideas by presenting an authentic meal for Learning Weekend participants in 1990, they decided to expand the concept to the visiting public. The elaborate 18th-century meal was offered first to museum-related groups, such as the Virginia Association of Museums and the Raleigh Tavern Society, with rave reviews. Brandau explained the excitement: "Guests enjoy these colonial dinners, I think, because there is so much interaction created at the table as each person's plate goes around the table to be served by the other guests. Then and now, dinner guests needed to watch very carefully as their plates went around the table or they might not get their own plate back!"
On occasion guests have been given a list of toasts and graces of the period and urged to choose one or more. Suitable toasts were contributed by Bill White, director of the department of presentation and tours; examples of appropriate graces were provided by the Reverend Dr. John Turner, manager of religious programs, and his assistant David deSimone.
Brandau and Beth Morrison, assistant manager at Shields Tavern, studied the research from curators and historians and then carefully schooled the waiters and waitresses in the intricate formalities of service à la française. This form of dining service, Morrison explains, requires twice the number of waiters as Shields Tavern would normally use. Almost all communication between the waiters and the hostess, who presides over the meal and directs the waiters, is silent. Whether setting or clearing the table, the server starts with the person to the left of the host, who is seated directly opposite the hostess, and continues around the table in a clockwise motion, clearing or laying down only one item at a time. For instance, first he would pick up each guest's fork, then circle the table again to pick up all the spoons, and again for the knives, and so on until the table is clear.
Ladies never ordered anything for themselves and therefore never engaged in any conversation with the waiters. The gentleman next to the lady took the responsibility of asking the server for more wine if her glass became empty. Waiters were meant neither to be seen nor heard. Much of their time was spent standing like statues, waiting for an unobtrusive signal from the hostess to proceed with the next task. Multi-course dinners were an important social event and usually lasted for several hours. After toasts at the end of the meal, the ladies typically adjourned to the parlor for tea while gentlemen remained at the table for several more rounds of drinks before joining the ladies.
These elaborate colonial dinners have been available since 1990 by special request for groups as small as 10 or as large as 150. Morrison works with the conference sales office to get word of this unusual event out to groups that stay at Colonial Williamsburg hotels. And how do the waiters themselves feel about all this additional effort? "They love it," laughs Morrison. "It's not an easy meal, but when I sign up servers, I always have more than I need."
While only groups can experience the colonial dinner, parties as small as one can visit Shields and try the Sampler. "Everyone should come taste what it was like back then," urges Chef Swann. He expresses amazement at the level of food preparation knowledge people had during the 18th century and surprise at the use of some ingredients. "They were really big on wine, brandy, nutmeg, and mace. They used it in everything," he exclaimed.
The staff of Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Food Programs is still cooking up ideas for new recipes with Chef Swann and other Colonial Williamsburg chefs, and a dessert sampler may appear in the near future. Chef Swann is clearly delighted with the prospects, "There is no end to what we're going to do here at Shields with 18th-century food!"
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