A Year Of No Sugar: Post 83
November 16, 2011 § 3 Comments
Lately, I’ve gotten the feeling that I’m going back in time… cleaning our cast iron pan, gathering the eggs from our chickens, buying our milk from the local farm in half-gallon mason jars, selecting apples out of wooden bins at the Farmer’s Market, ordering bread from our local general store. Our freezer is full of meat: half a cow and half a pig locally raised and slaughtered. I buy butter by the 36 pound case and flour by the 50 pound bag. The other day I realized I needed something from the actual supermarket and I felt kind of… disappointed.
It’s not entirely intentional, it just seems to be the natural evolution of things when you try to get away from processed foods (read: added sugar.) Want good bread? If you aren’t prepared to make it in the quantity your family will consume, you order it from Jed in Rupert who makes the area’s best no sugar bread with only four ingredients. Want organic meat? Unless you want to remortgage your house to buy it at the Farmer’s Market, or pick over the sad, non-existant selection at our local supermarkets, you find a guy who knows a cow, and a reputable slaughterhouse. And so on.
As if to complete the effect, last Saturday I had an adventure I’d been waiting for since October. For a birthday present my husband arranged something I’ve always wanted to do: a hearth cooking workshop. So early Saturday morning I, and six friends, converged on the home of Sally Brillon in Hebron, New York.
As we walked up the path in the crisp morning air I looked around at the ancient outbuildings- remnants of the many different jobs having a family farm used to entail. Standing on the rough flagstone step, we knocked on the saltbox door and entered another world.
I was in heaven. Immediately upon entering you were warmed by waves emanating from the enormous slate hearth which dominated the room. Sally had started the fire two hours earlier to get it up to the temperatures we’d be needing to cook the meal for the day: roast chicken, potatoes with parsley, mashed Hubbard squash, cranberries, bread and apple pie for dessert. We seven students and Sally spent the next five hours accomplishing this task.
Now I am a little obsessed with this time period… if PBS ever does “Frontier House” again I will politely beat people out of the way with a stick to volunteer. Why do I love this stuff so much, I wonder? After all, we are talking about the age when the average lifespan for a woman was, like, twelve or something. And of course, we must remember Sally would make it all quite painless for us: we didn’t have to stoke the fire at 7am… we didn’t have to wash the cast iron pans and dishes for eight afterwards in a tub of lukewarm water. She had a real bathroom for us and none of us was in danger of dying from appendicitis, childbirth or from an infected scab on the knee. We had it sooooo easy.
Instead, we got to do the fun part: we cooked two chickens in a reflecting oven before the fire, turning the spit every fifteen minutes. We boiled pots full of vegetables that hung from “S” hooks off of a crane that swung into place over the flames. We started a soft-wood fire in the bake oven and filled it with red coals until it was ready to bake our two loaves of bread. Lastly, after assembling a lovely apple pie, we laid it carefully in a cast iron pot, placed it on a “burner” of hot coals right on the hearth, and then shoveled coals on the lid- after a time those coals would be removed and replaced with fresh. It was really starting to smell good in there.
And you can imagine it tasted good too. Not gourmet, not fancy recipe good, but good. Wholesome. Filling. Real.
I loved that we used pot lid lifters and tin ladles and yellowware bowls. There was no Teflon, no plastic, no mixers or microwaves. In fact, there was only one modern toxin I could see: sugar.
Of course, you must’ve already guessed there was sugar in the cranberries and in the apple pie. For good measure Sally’s recipe also had us drizzle maple syrup onto the top of the mashed squash. After some thought I had decided ahead of time not to request any recipe changes- it was authenticity we were going for here, after all. The cranberries tasted almost painfully sweet to me, but the squash and the pie were very mildly sweet, even to my recently more sensitive tongue. Sally later told me that one class she had actually left the sugar out of the pie by mistake and nobody even noticed- it was just as good.
Back in those days sugar was a lot harder to come by, and boiling your own maple syrup was a task that took up a considerable portion of one’s Spring energies. As we waited for the chicken and bread loaves to finish baking, Sally read to us snippets from the diaries of Major James Wilson, who built the house in 1786, and lived there for the rest of his life with his wife and eight children. A few entries described the gargantuan undertaking of making maple syrup: sterilizing the sap buckets, soaking the wood barrels in the nearby stream, gathering the sap bucket by bucket, and finally building the arch for the long evaporating process, not in a saphouse like today, but actually out in the open air of the woods. If only sugar was that hard to come by nowadays.
So, I got to live out my Laura Ingalls fantasy, at least for a morning. Too bad my 1870s-era house isn’t quite old enough to have had a cooking hearth of it’s own- Sally tells me that they likely used a cast iron stove. Hmmmmm- I wonder what that would be like?
You can see how I get into trouble.