Rolling in the Dough – 19th Century Style!

We get so busy in our lives that we can drift far from what fills us, body and soul.  Let me clarify that, I get so busy in my life that I drift far from what fills me, body and soul.  It’s a bit of grace that brings us, brings me, back to shore.  Back to the refuge of the heart.

raspIt’s not surprising. An occasional raspberry harvested from the garden can be a perk on this overloaded teacher’s desk, but when the first school bell of the year rings, I am off and running! I get so focused on each day’s finish line that I often land, with a thud, once the kids are off to their buses. 

Even so, I don’t slow down, don’t peer through a wider lens, don’t bother to stop at the feedbag or water trough.  I just….keep…..going.

Thankfully, inevitably, grace steps in.  This time it appeared in the form of an email from the Genesee Country Museum.  “Domestic Skills Symposium,” it read, “a weekend of hands-on learning and making, with experts from around the country.”  With my interest piqued, I scrolled through the offerings: A Story in Thread. Stitching for Freedom.  Freedom Fighters of Upstate New York…….Rolling in the Dough.  I lingered on that last one (as if I had time!) noting the full day of baking in the historic Livingston Backus kitchen under the tutelage of Peggy Roll.  Peggy Roll?  An all-day, all-bread class with a woman named Roll.  This was a no-brainer in my book.  I filled out the registration and hit send.

rolling in doughThe kitchen was warm and welcoming on the cold November morning when I discovered I’d have my hands in the bread bowl with historic interpreters from kitchens as far away as the New York-Vermont border and Ontario, Canada.  Despite the distance and different experiences that we individually brought to the table, we were bound in our enthusiasm to learn about, create, and (perhaps best of all) sample 19th century goodies with Peggy at the helm.

Peggy Roll

Peggy Roll

Peggy started our day by introducing us to period-correct cookbooks, reading bits and pieces as she leafed through pages pausing a moment to share the Buckeye Cookery dedication, first published in 1876.  “To Those PLUCKY HOUSEWIVES,” she quipped with a glint in her eye, “who master their work instead of allowing it to master them…..”

While she had me at hello, Peggy sealed the deal with the use of the word plucky.  I took a quick trip into the 21st century typing the word plucky into a Google search. Plucky: showing courage in the face of difficulties.  Yes, me.  Plucky. Every. Single. Day.

It only got better from there.  Our day would not only be filled with tasty tidbits but historical ones as well! Here’s some of my favorites:

dough gcm 51.  What seemed like a random placement of feathers was not accidental.  Anyone care to venture a guess as to why they were there or what they had to do with baking? 

2.  Prior to the 1850s, cakes used to be made with yeast.  Baking soda wasn’t produced commercially.  That meant that on baking day, those plucky housewives used what they had, dough.  They would just lop off a piece and start adding ingredients like butter, sugar, currants, and eggs.

dough gcm 153.  What I thought were purely decorative flowers on the mantle of the hearth turned out to be poppy seed pods.  As for the paddle in the vase….well, I have no idea.  Maybe a fly swatter?

4.  Finally, I learned that old recipe books are like good mysteries.  You have to be able to decipher the clues. Here are a few lines from 19th-century recipe-mysteries, see if you can figure them out.

  • “1 lb. dough, 1/2 lard or butter, 1/2 tsp spice….”  How much is a 1/2 lard or butter?
  • “half pint of family yeast…”  What’s family yeast?
  • “Take a quantity of a quartern loaf from the dough…”  Quartern meaning..:..?
  • “a wine-glass of brandy…”  Is this a Friday-after-a-rough-day-at-work sized glass?

Granted this wouldn’t be considered great literature for most people, but if you’re reading my blog you’re not most people and might take up the challenge. 

dough gcm 16Ingredients aside, the names of the things we created were foreign to our 21st century ears.  By the end of the day, our repertoire of baked goods included Barmbrack, Rusks, Galettes, and both Banbury and Roxbury cakes.  As a bonus, we made little fritter-donuts with candied orange peel boiled in lard over the open hearth. Rather than try to explain each recipe, let it suffice to look at the pictures and, if you must, drool a little.bread at GCMdough gcm 2dough gcm 17





Peggy Roll’s counterpart in the kitchen, Janette, was alongside us throughout the day to offer a helping hand.  Encouraging us to pitch in, she busily prepared our lunchtime Shin of Beef Broth Soup.  By the time the dishes were cleaned and cleared, the breads baked, and the soup ready, the table was set for a well-earned respite and feast.

dough gcmDo I need to say that by the time I got home, I couldn’t even contemplate dinner?

dough gcm 13What an incredibly nourishing day on so many levels.  Over and over again I am in awe of the dedication of the people who continue to offer outstanding programming at the Genesee Country Museum.  Their classes are rooted in history but still apply to the way we live our lives today. 

With a wide array of programs to choose from, there’s something for everyone.  Coming in the near future are Yuletide in the Country tours, a bear carving class, and a Holiday Open House.  Often there are public library passes available that offer a buy one/get one free admission though there are some limitations on them around special programs.

Maybe, like me, you’ll find yourself inspired, or perhaps just re-inspired if you visit the museum.  What else is there to say but thank you to Peggy Roll and the folks at the GCMV not only for a great class but for the reminder of how important it is to balance work and play, to pay attention to the little things that cultivate curiosity and a happy heart.  I’ve broached this topic before in my post, Finding Balance, but I’m realizing that for me, a happy heart includes gathering together around a kitchen table, not just for the food but for the company, the sharing, the love that collectively gets put into the food and into each other.

dough gcm 11dough gcm 3DOUGH




In light of that, if there are any fellow bakers from our day together reading this, a great big thanks to each of you, too!  Please chime in below about your living museums in the comments so we can all come visit them!  The 2020 Domestic Skills Symposium is November 13-15, maybe I’ll see you there?

As for me, I’ll be at the Ogden Farmers Library on December 7 and, though I’ve mostly been traveling to do programming, this Spring I’m going to offer a puff pastry class here at our little homestead.

Wishing you all a little bit of grace if you’ve gotten caught in the busy-ness current and are needing to find your way back to solid ground!  Hope to see you around the bread bowl one day soon!



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