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Zoe has changed from her sweatshirt dress into a colonial costume: ruffled shirt, patterned waistcoat fastened with straight pins, a full and flowing skirt. Last, she ties a cloth pocket around her waist, which tucks inside her skirt, the way they wore pockets 200 hundred years ago. At the last minute, she slips her cell phone into her pocket and returns to stoking the coals at the hearth.
Nearly every month during the colder seasons, the Museums of Old York prepare a semi-authentic 18th century meal cooked by hearth and served in the restored Jefferd’s Tavern, built in 1754. Zoe’s job is to get people, mostly kids, involved in history. On Tavern Dinner nights, she bustles around the tavern; finding a misplaced pinafore, feeding the fire and rearranging coals, serving heaping plates of duck stew that diners wash down with Diet Pepsi or wine that they brought from home.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM COOKING ON THE HEARTH, OR PUTTING YOURSELF IN THE MINDSET OF SOMEONE IN THE 18th CENTURY?
Anything you can cook in your house today, you can cook on the hearth. I really haven’t found anything you can’t cook on the hearth. Especially with the tavern dinners, we think: “What are the old recipes?” “What can we cook on the hearth?” The stuff we don’t cook on the hearth is not because we couldn’t, it’s because it would take longer than we would want. There is also a big misconception that people think hearth cooking is really dangerous, that people exploded at the hearth or caught on fire. And when you start hearth cooking, you learn it really isn’t true. There are rumors out there that it was once the leading cause of death for women, and it’s not true at all. There were women whose skirt caught on fire, but it definitely is not dangerous.
DO YOU LIKE COOKING ON THE HEARTH?
Yes, I do. I grew up cooking on fires while camping, so it’s not all that different. It’s not something that I’d say: “Hey, I really want a hearth so I can hearth cook at home instead of cooking on my normal stove.” But with tavern dinners or school or bus visits, it’s not something I feel awkward about. I think, “Fun! We are cooking on the hearth today.” In the summertime, it is very hot. No matter what you do, you are going to be sweating a lot. When you are cooking here in August, it’s gross. But I like using coals, you actually have the ability to vary the temperature a lot more than you would an electric stove. With coals, you add more hot coals when you want it to be hotter. It’s more difficult, because coals are getting colder as they are farther from the fire. I actually love making soups on it, you have the arm that swings in and out, and you put the pot on there and get the fire going until the soup is hot.
WHY ARE YOU INTERESTED IN HISTORY?
I think my interest in history is more about understanding that there is no simple answer to anything, and that everything is always changing. You may think of the 18th century family as a husband and wife and their eight children and that’s it. And when you really look at history, you realize a woman may have been pregnant before she got married and they have six children that are theirs and three children they are raising for somebody else and they have their grandparents living there, and their daughter had a baby out of wedlock. You realize history isn’t as simple as we thought, and that Puritanical New England wasn’t what we thought it was. One of the things that really interests me about history is not the actual historic facts, but current perceptions about history and why people think things about history. I find the entire Colonial Revival movement of the late 19th and early 20th century that started summer camps and vacation homes along the coast to actually saving historic buildings. The whole movement towards going back to basics; that I find fascinating. Whether it is today with an online store like Etsy where people are making their own things and able to sell them to a global community is like what would have been a local store. Or the late 19th century during the Arts and Crafts movement when people were responding to mass-production and building their own things from scratch, which turned to mass-produced things that looked like arts and crafts. I think that perception of our own history is more interesting than the facts from the past.
ARE THERE THINGS THAT INTEREST YOU IN PARTICULAR ABOUT PURITANICAL NEW ENGLAND?
Again, the perceptions we have of Puritanical New England. I guess I don’t think that Puritan New England was like what most of us think it was. The facts are there, and we can read the facts in lots of different ways. And then you can read people’s journals. There’s a journal of a schoolteacher who lived here in York. And he writes about the boys being really similar in age to him, about being really a little too rowdy with the boys, and that he should have been more ‘adult-like’. Which is something any one of us could say today! Or he’d write: “I decided not to teach today and go swim in the mill pong because it is warm outside.” You get the sense of humanity, which I think it missing from our perspective of Puritanical New England, that people went to church and they didn’t sing or drink. And then you see that there was a tavern every quarter of a mile. Everyone was drinking. You look at the jail records and see a lot of criminals were locked up for drunkenness or debt. There’s a lot more life in the past. It hits me at home whenever kids come to the museum and they are all dressed in black-and-white, because the school said to dress like pilgrims. And the pictures they see of pilgrims were ones that were painted in the late 19th century about what they thought the pilgrims looked like, 200 years before them. And so the kids today, are now wearing black and white, when the pilgrims really wore purple and dark red and green, wool short jackets and skirts.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO GET DRESSED IN PERIOD CLOTHING FOR YOUR JOB?
I’m so used to it at this point. It is fun. With period costumes, there is a huge variance. We can’t afford the higher-class costumes, and we are really interpreting what everyday craftspeople are doing. We tend to wear what the poorer people were wearing, or some combination with the merchant class. But, the problem is that most of what we know about what people were wearing is from portraits. And you aren’t getting your portraits painted if you were a farmer. Were farming men always wearing a waistcoat? I don’t know. Did farming women always wear a stays? I don’t know! Women of a lower class whose husbands were working the fields were not keeping a diary. What we try to do it keep it as accurate as we can to keep to sort of a middling class of people. It’s hard: we don’t have funds on staff for hiring people to do the costuming, so I end up making a lot of the costumes. But, putting on the costume, it’s always kind of fun.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Having time in my life and space in my life to do what I love. That’s probably the most important thing to me. I love being at home on the weekends and going cross-country skiing, watching the chickens and going hiking. And, sitting in front of the wood stove and reading a book. Baking bread. I love those things that put me in a quieter space, not necessarily that I am inactive, but at my job I am running around a lot. People are asking me questions, especially in the busy season. There’s a lot going on and I’m usually multitasking. And that’s great. But when I’m away from here, what I really appreciate is being able to just enjoy the moment and or where I am and what I’m doing. And spend time with people that I have a lot of fun with and who I laugh a lot with!
WHAT LESSON HAVE YOU LEARNED OR ARE LEARNING?
To let go of the outcome. The outcome isn’t as important as the process. And in that, the outcome can change and be someone else’s idea of what the outcome should be, and you can appreciate it just as much if you aren’t dead-set on that outcome. I don’t think I was ever super outcome-attached, but I think being in a long-term relationship and planning a wedding those kind of things make you a little more relaxed.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE MOMENT OF THE DAY?
Recently, there’s been that moment after I wake up, after I get ready and I’ve fed the chickens and the dog has been let out and back in, and I make that trek out to my car to turn it on and warm it up and I stop by the bird feeder. And right at the bird feeder, all the birds are just going crazy and eating the birdseed. Especially recently, the snow has been hanging on the trees and in that morning light, I just stand there and think about how I want to stand there all day. It almost brings tears to my eyes. There is just that moment in the day where I am just so appreciative of where I am.
For more about Tavern Dinners and to make reservations, click here.