Saturday, July 3, 2010

Colonial Cooking

June 2010 008 Have you ever cooked a whole chicken over an open fire? Or baked a cake in a lidded cast-iron pot covered in burning embers? Just in time for the Fourth of July - the day the U.S. celebrates its independence - take a step back in time to see how our Colonial forefathers and mothers put dinner on the table.  Hang in until the end of this post for a couple of recipes used in this Colonial Cooking demonstration.

Today we’re in Princeton, N.J., my home town and a place where you can’t throw a stone without encountering some facet of our nation’s early history. In specific, we’re stopping at the Princeton Battlefield State Park, the site of one of the fiercest battles of the American Revolutionary War.

It was here that on January 3, 1777, General George Washington gained his first field victory over British troops after a series of American defeats in the summer and fall of 1776.

Today, the 85-acre park includes the battlefield, the common grave of British and American dead, and the Thomas Clarke House and farms. From time to time, special demonstrations such as this recent event featuring Colonial cooking are held.  Battle re-enactments that make history come alive also take place here periodically.

June 2010 001 The house is named after Thomas Clarke, a Quaker farmer whose family lived there during the Revolutionary period.  Here’s the master bedroom with its sparse furnishings and fireplace.

June 2010 034 The house contains many tools and implements that were necessary for daily life. Imagine spinning cotton on one of those spinning wheels.

June 2010 032 And then weaving it on this loom to make fabric for clothing, or sheets or handtowels. How we take things for granted today.

June 2010 033

I am always intrigued by old samplers. This one, dated 1816 was stitched by Rachel Clarke, a relative of the original owner of the house.

June 2010 035  More about history later. Let’s get back to the food. We were lucky to arrive just as the chicken was finished cooking and these folks were about to take it off the rotating spit.

June 2010 006 They cooked up a bunch of other food too, including these beef pasties – shredded beef in small pastry pouches.

June 2010 015 An onion pie was cooling off inside the house too.

June 2010 016 To finish the meal, a lemon tea cake awaited – maybe a little more browned on the top than you might like.

June 2010 018But then, it’s not that easy to control the temperature when you can’t see what you’re cooking and you have no idea whether the hot wooden embers above those lids are at 375 degrees or 450 degrees.

June 2010 010 The chicken looked like it had been cooked to perfection. The cavity was stuffed with rosemary and no other seasonings were used.

June 2010 022 I was salivating from the aromas inside the house, but didn’t want to be so bold as to ask for a sample, since it seemed like the workers were the only ones eating. Oh well, they did give me two recipes that I can share with you at the end of this post so I’m grateful for that.

June 2010 050 But before I get to the recipes, let me show you a little more inside the Thomas Clarke House. The first floor houses a museum with lots of Revolutionary War artifacts.

June 2010 040 I forgot to tell you that after the battle (in which the Americans prevailed by the way), the Thomas Clarke House was used as a hospital for both American and British soldiers. American General Hugh Mercer was wounded during the battle. Unfortunately, even though he was attended by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a famous Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the general died here.

An oak tree that was believed to have stood on the field since the battle was later dubbed “the Mercer Oak.” When the beloved centuries-old tree died in March 2000, the whole town mourned.

June 2010 041 Fortunately, an offspring grown from an acorn of the Mercer Oak in 1981 now thrives next to the large stump of the original tree. Although there’s no one in this photo, families flock to the battlefield on warm days to have picnics, fly kites or play games.

June 2010 062 It’s a far cry from two centuries ago when the bayonets and musket fire were prevalent on the battlefield. Rallying his soldiers as they rode to the battlefield, General Washington said, “Parade with us my brave fellows. There is but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly.” 

June 2010 042

The victory at Princeton concluded the military campaign known as the Ten Crucial Days. Here’s a little summation if you want to learn more about it: June 2010 043 For those of you celebrating the Fourth, I hope you have a wonderful day.

And here are a couple of recipes made over the open fire at the Thomas Clarke House, adapted for modern ovens:

Onion Pie 

From the Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop

Printable Recipe Here

1/2 lb. potatoes

1/2 lb. apples

1/2 lb. onions

6 eggs

1/2 lb. butter

pastry ingredients:

3 c. flour

1 t. salt

1 c. shortening (can include up to 1/4 c. butter)

1 egg, lightly beaten

1/2 c. very cold water

  1. Cut the onions, potatoes and apples into thin slices.
  2. Lay half of the pastry in a pie pan.
  3. Spread 1/2 cup butter pats over crust.
  4. Beat two eggs. Combine separately, 1/4 cup each nutmet, pepper, salt, mace
  5. Add layers of apples, onions and potatoes until pie is filled, putting some beaten egg and spices between each layer.
  6. Spread the leftover butter on top and cover with crust.
  7. Cut a few slits in top for steam.
  8. Cook in preheated 350 degree oven for 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until golden brown.

(Be sure to slice the apples and potatoes thin, no more than 1/8”, so they cook through.


Lemon Tea Cake Recipe

Makes four loaves

printable recipe here

2 cups butter (1 pound) softened

4 cups sugar

1 t. salt

4 T. lemon peel, granted fine

8 large eggs

5 c. unbleached white flour

4 t. baking powder

2 c. milk

Lemon Syrup

1 1/2 ups sugar

1 cup fresh lemon juice

Cook syrup until sugar is completely dissolved.

  1. Combine flour and baking powder, set aside
  2. Beat butter, sugar, salt, lemon peel until fluffy
  3. Add eggs and mix well
  4. Add flour and baking powder and mix well.
  5. Fold in milk
  6. Pour into greased loaf pans
  7. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes
  8. Cool for five minutes after baking, then prick with a fork and pour the syrup over it

Cake freezes well.


  1. I will be making the onion pie for sure, it is right up my alley, but I will not be wearing a long dress and bonnet while baking it, ok?
    Happy 4th!

  2. When I lived back east there were a number of pioneer villages in Ontario. The largest is Upper Canada Village where they reenacted life as it was for the pioneers. Love the onion pie, but I won't be cooking it over embers:D

  3. What a fun post!

    That onion pie looks fantastic. Definitely got me in the patriotic spirit of things.

  4. What a neat experience. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thank you for the reminder of how much rich history we have right here in NJ. The onion pie sounds great! Happy 4th!

  6. One of my most favorite places to visit is Colonial Williamsburg, especially the bakeshops. Such places as the Thomas Clarke House and Williamsburg do a marvelous job of recreating as closely as possible the regular tasks and activities of days past; I love having even that glimpse into what life was like (a glimpse and a taste are all I need - I don't mind not having to wear petticoats in the heat of summer over an open flame!)

    Happy 4th of July!

  7. Che bello!! Molto interessante questo reportage, lo sai che io sono attratta da tutto quello che รจ antico e che nasconde una storia. Grazie per le ricette. un abbraccio, buon fine settimana Daniela.

  8. Me, being a historical fiction addict, would love to have spent a day here. The pasties look fab...something I've always wanted to try making. Great recipes-- in fact, I'm bookmarking them. Great post, Linda. Interesting and mouthwatering, too. What a great way to start the 4th of July weekend!

  9. I do love the glimpses these villages give us to true history - I always was more interested in seeing the place, feeling the clothes and smelling the aromas than memorizing the dates. I have always loved history and the food makes the past was so accessible. The chicken does look ready and the rosemary would be enough. Cooking was once camping. I will admit to preferring my kitchen (and cool clothes) on a hot summer day! Happy 4th of July.

  10. Oh dear, that onion pie really make me drool Linda. Happy 4th of July!

  11. I loved this Linda! Everything looks so authentic. I will definitely have to visit this site one day. The onion pie sounds intriguing --thanks for the recipe!

    I spent many days last summer visiting all of the many sites from the first Revolutionary battle, The Battle of Brooklyn (also called the battle of Long Island), to blog about it. I felt such a wonderful connection to history doing that and it made me appreciate July 4th even more.

  12. I would say they ate pretty good back then, that chicken looks great, but I'm with everyone else on the onion pie, my favorite here. All I can say is thank goodness for modern day appliances!

  13. I loved every minute of the tour. Your photos are just wonderful. I also like the recipes. One instruction in particular caught my eye. It was the bit about dotting the lower pie crust with 1/2 cup butter :-). That recipe has my name on it. Have a wonderful holiday. Blessings...Mary

  14. I've never visited the Battleground when they were cooking! How wonderful that you saw that. That chicken did look good.

    I don't want to sound old, but I remember the Mercer Oak like it was yesterday, and, you're right, everyone was very sad when it went to its reward.

    I also love to walk behind the the woods which leads to the lovely pond at the Institute for Advanced Study.

  15. Interesting post but I'm sure glad for my electric oven and cooktop. I know my Dad tells me how is mum baked amazing sponge cakes in her wood fired oven. I really don't know how they did it! A lost art!

  16. Great to find your site... the cooking event looks like it was great fun and they were very brave to do it (cooking with coals is an art)!! Great reporting, thanks for a wonderful post!

  17. What a fun tour. I use to live in East Windsor so I am familiar with the area but honestly never remember going on this tour. So thanks for sharing the history of the home and all the recipes.

  18. Oh Linda, you continue to out do yourself. I am definitely saving this Onion Pie Recipe and making it first chance. I have always used the first one I ever read... will tell you later. And I am hoping to be able to afford to have a local metal business make me that outdoor spit. I wanted one for my fireplace, but too complicated for my small fireplace.

    My grandmother still cooked on an old, huge, black wood burning, but converted to coal stove and she was a wonderful cook and up in PA it was great to be in her kitchen in the winter when we went to visit her from here in Jax, Florida.

  19. Lovely tribute to our country on the Fourth of July, Linda! Great photos and recipes. I enjoy history and tradition, too, which is why I love living in the Northeast.
    P.S. I am so enjoying "Marcus of Umbria"! Hot days in the hammock reading ... oh, yeah. Thanks again.

  20. It's always good to be reminded of where we come from, and hoe fortunate we are to have so much... I wish we had a 4 July-type celebration in SA!

  21. That's my kind of barbecued chicken. Couldn't be more down to earth!

  22. What a great post. Living history museums are always fun, but it's even more neat to watch a cooking demonstration and get recipes too! Thank you for sharing.

  23. Hi Linda - I am a patriot! Thoroughly enjoyed this post!

  24. This looks like a fun place to visit in Princeton, thanks for letting me know about it. But it seems so wrong to tempt you with delicious aromas and not let you taste anything!