Did you ever sing that song, “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah, someone’s in the kitchen I know, someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah, strumming on the old banjo”? Every morning when we have staff meetings at Grand Portage I am tempted to sing that song, because the site supervisor will say, “Karen’s in the Ojibwe Village, Johnny is in the Great Hall, Carrie is in the Heritage Center, and Tom is in the Kitchen.” By reviewing where everyone is, we also learn how to cover people for lunches, who is doing programs, and who will be on a special project.
Last week I was the “someone’s in the kitchen” person. We have all had at least two days training in the kitchen but I had my first solo day in the kitchen.
The kitchen at Grand Portage was used to prepare meals for the 100 or so people who would eat in the Great Hall in the summer, especially during the time of Rendezvous, when the partners of the Northwest Fur Company would have their annual meeting. The Northwest Fur Company was a wealthy company and they had the best of everything, especially in the kitchen. When the partners were here, they even brought in their own chef and baker.
The kitchen has all the latest, modern conveniences (for the 1790’s). There are large kettles, pots, and bowls. There are several “dutch ovens” – as we call them – they were just called covered kettles back in the day. There are grid-irons, reflector ovens, and a toaster. There is an ice-cream maker just like the ones you hand cranked when you were a kid. And there are items specific to the times: an ale shoe, a syllabub maker, a spider (pan with three legs) and roast spits. Out back we have a clay bake oven for bread, pies, cakes, and cookies.
We cook in the kitchen every day, no matter who is in the kitchen. Stews are always good because they cook over the hearth all day and are easy to show to people when they come in. Tom roasted some eggs in the hearth. On my solo day I made corn cakes (like pancakes only with lots of corn) on the griddle, roasted a chicken in the reflector oven, and made a date pudding in a dutch oven. The corn cakes turned out very well once I figured out how many coals were needed to get the pan the right temperature. People enjoyed seeing the chicken in the reflector oven (“Is that a real chicken?”).
My date pudding, however, did not turn out well. I joked that I had discovered a new way to make charcoal. Lessons for next time: preheat the dutch oven, put the pudding on a trivet inside the dutch oven, and cook for 15 minutes instead of an hour.
Next time I am in the kitchen I will put on a stew to cook all day and try my hand at the bake oven. You build a fire in the oven, let the fire burn hot for a couple of hours until just coals are left, then shovel out the coals. After letting the oven cool to the proper temperature (throw in a handful of flour and if it lands and turns brown, the oven is about 350) you put in the bread or cookies or cake. Then you close it up and wait until they are done. Things will cook faster than they do in a traditional oven, so my biggest concern is that everything will turn out like my date pudding. I’m sure I will get the hang of it after a few experiments.
Working in the kitchen is labor intensive (talk about slaving over a hot hearth all day!), but very similar to campfire cooking. There are easy things to make and things that are more complicated. Some of the experienced cooks here like to make really elaborate foods including meat pies with fancy sauces. Of course, while we are cooking we also talk to all the guests who come in about what we are doing and the Northwest Fur Company.
When we are done cooking, we leave some of the food out for display and make sure we clean up all the dishes we got dirty. Then we let the fire die down so that it is just a few coals by the end of the day. On my first solo day I was done cooking by 2, got the dishes done by 3, filled the water buckets and cisterns and swept the kitchen by 4, and actually had about 15 minutes to sit quietly in a chair by the hearth at the end of the day!
Working in the kitchen is a chance to be creative and have some fun with experimenting. We are allowed to take home food that we make, if we brought in the ingredients ourselves. So I took home the chicken that I made and we had it for supper the next couple of nights.
Someone’s in the kitchen with Karen. Someone’s in the kitchen with Tom. They are visitors learning about Grand Portage in just another day at work for both of us.