Cooking up the Past

Lifting weights had not prepared me for the strain of beating eggs to stiff peaks with a hand crank beater. Turning and turning and turning, switching arms every few minutes, until the translucent whites began to froth and then, finally, turn to a foamy mass, a moment my husband and I feared might never come. Making breakfast 19th century-style is hard work.

A few Junes ago, we participated in the Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen program at the Villa Louis estate in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The meal takes you inside the lives of the prosperous Dousman family – or rather the lives of the family’s servants. You don’t just eat the foods of the past – you roll up your sleeves to prepare them using the tools, recipes, and technology of the time. That means hand-crank eggbeaters, wood stoves, and recipes a bit less instructive and a lot more intuitive than today. The jelly omelet team had it far worse than us, though, beating two-dozen eggs, yolks and whites separated, for an hour.

Arriving around 8:30AM, we were quickly divided into teams to take on various tasks. The breakfast menu changes with the seasons, and that June day’s menu included fresh strawberries, bacon fried with sweet peppers, rice waffles served with strawberry-rhubarb sauce, fried Mississippi catfish, a thin bread called Wisconsin cake, and coffee. Some teams worked in the steamy outdoor preserve kitchen, while the rest cooked in the main kitchen with its dim gas lighting and imposing, ornate cast iron wood stove.

Laughter soon filled the kitchen as everyone struggled to complete their assignments. Anxious choruses of “I’m not sure we picked the right job” echoed around the room, followed by encouraging words from fellow participants. You’re never completely on your own, though. The Villa Louis kitchen staff are there to answer questions and to lend a hand to avert a cooking disaster.

About two hours later, breakfast was finally ready. My stomach grumbled fiercely after all this hard work. Everyone sat down to eat at two communal tables adorned with jars of flowers and herbs freshly picked from the grounds in the mansion’s kitchen. Our Wisconsin cakes, which seemed like a sure disaster during the egg beating and mixing process, turned out pretty well, as did everything else that made it to the table. Surveying the breakfast feast before us, all of that hard work definitely paid off: new experiences and a renewed appreciation for electric mixers.

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