What would it be like to live in two eras at once?
Last week I read a beautiful and thought-provoking piece about working at a living history museum, by the blogger and historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman. “Living My Best 1848 Life,” posted at Lapham’s Quarterly blog, recounts Lohman’s experience working as a first-person interpreter at an Ohio living history museum, where she donned petticoats and voluminous dresses and pretended it was 1848. With her “family” (played by colleagues as well as her real family members), Lohman told museum visitors about the latest news, like the first women’s rights meeting at Seneca Falls, and cooked over a wood-burning stove.
She describes relearning to cook with that stove, sans timer or thermometer, and building the experience necessary to be a good cook in the 19th century. She writes movingly about interpreting an 1848 funeral, and how for a moment she almost felt it was real. While she was teaching visitors about specific aspects of 19th-century life, she was also learning how to step into the past herself.
Lohman put into words some of the things I felt when I interned at the same living history museum a few years later. Looking out the window over my dry sink, where I was scrubbing dishes, I could almost imagine that this was my village, and that these were my neighbors strolling across the green. I also came home smelling like wood smoke from the fire I’d stoked all day, and my dad would come up to me at night and sniff my hair for that tell-tale smokiness. I’d been visiting the past that day, and every day that summer, and at the same time it was never enough. The extreme historian in me wanted to spend the night in “my house,” as I thought of it, reading by lamplight in the tiny parlor and waking up to boil a kettle of water for my morning coffee. And there was a disconnect, too, since I wore the clothes of a first-person interpreter but spoke in the third person: “The mistress of the house would throw a handful of flour in the bake oven to see if it was hot enough.” I lived in the past but at the same time was always a few steps back in the present.
If you’re wondering what it’s like to work as a first-person interpreter, I highly recommend Lohman’s piece for its moving, beautifully written perspective. And check out her blog, Four Pounds Flour, where she replicates recipes from the past as a means of making history three-dimensional. Even though I’ve moved away from historical cooking myself, it’s still fun for me to follow other historical gastronomists, as Lohman calls herself, and she’s one of the best.