Frog’s legs, gooseberries, candied fruit peel, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, artichoke hearts and potatoes. It may sound like the weirdest shopping list ever, but in reality it’s the recipe for a pie once considered a delicacy by Virginia’s richest colonists. And Frank Clark, who recently discovered the recipe in an 18th-century cookbook, can’t wait to try it out.
Clark is Master of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum that recreates life in 18th-century Virginia. In Williamsburg, the streets are lined with period buildings and the buildings are filled with craftspeople plying old-fashioned trades like brickmaking, weaving and printing. And in two period kitchens, assisted by a full staff of cooks and apprentices, Clark demonstrates the food practices of a bygone era.
Clark stumbled into the field in the early 1990s. He had been leading school tours of Colonial Williamsburg, but during the slow season he was asked if he wanted to fill in at the colonial kitchen. At first it felt unfamiliar—after all, Clark loves Asian cuisines and spicy flavors the colonists couldn’t even imagine. But he soon fell in love with the heat and bustle of the reconstructed kitchens, which feature open fires and period equipment.
Now, Clark is the kitchens’ master and supervisor. Dressed like an 18th-century Virginian, he demonstrates period recipes, researches food history, recreates old-fashioned recipes, and instructs interns and journeymen on the ins and outs of cooking in a period environment. One kitchen, located in the palace once inhabited by seven wealthy Virginia governors, specializes in the haute cuisine of the era. Another, located at an old armory with a working blacksmith shop, prepares more down-to-earth colonial meals.
“Cooking is cooking,” he says, “but learning how to work with wood coals is very tricky. Learning to bake in an oven that doesn’t have a thermometer is hard. You do a lot of sticking your arm in the oven.”
To understand the “foodways”—the study of what and how people ate in a specific place or era—of early American settlers, you have to know their backgrounds, what food was available, their attitudes toward different dishes and their manners and customs around eating. In Clark’s kitchen, those threads are woven together into actual food.
VIDEO: Historic Foodways Apprentice Tyler Wilson demonstrates how to make Ratafia Cakes using a recipe from John Nott’s “Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary,” published in 1726. (Credit: Colonial Williamsburg)
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Much of early colonial cooking boils down (literally) to a single dish: stew. For many colonists, it constituted most of their diet. “They eat the same thing every day, three times a day,” says Clark. “Bread and stew, bread and stew. Beer, bread and stew.” The monotonous diet reflected early colonists’ reliance on seasonal produce, variable sources of meat, and the unavailability of spices other than the herbs they grew. It also reflects the caloric needs of people who were building up what they saw as a wilderness into towns and cities.
As the colony’s wealth grew, Virginians introduced more variety into their diets. The foods they savored were inspired by English cuisine and included some dishes we might not think of as delicious today, like elaborately prepared organ meats and sweets dotted with essence of ambergris—a musky fragrance that comes from whale intestines. “A lot of foods use perfuming agents that we wouldn’t perceive as food,” says Clark. “They were there just to smell good.”
Tasting is prohibited at the demonstration kitchens due to local food service laws, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sample Clark’s creations. Along with his team, he adapts old-fashioned recipes for the modern kitchen and publishes them on the History is Served blog. They also make colonial cooking videos.
“18th-century recipes tend to talk in the language of the time,” he says. “They’re not a list of ingredients and a description of processes—they’re written in paragraphs, almost like a little story.” Clark uses his knowledge of period techniques and the tools of the modern cook to translate the chatty recipes into something that modern cooks can navigate.
Clark’s colonial delicacies can also be found on store shelves. He helped advise Mars, Incorporated when they developed American Heritage chocolate, a line of chocolate drinks and foods adapted from historic recipes. (Drinking chocolate was a common pick-me-up for colonists.) He worked with his team to create a line of condiments, like period ketchup and marmalade, for the museum and developed a punch mix that modern-day drinkers can use to make a vintage alcoholic treat. And Clark regularly works with chefs at the Colonial Williamsburg’s restaurants to help incorporate recipes and historic terminology into their menus.
Colonial cooking is a passion, but the food master has another love: beer. Luckily, the colonists shared his passion, and people of all ages enjoyed homebrewed ales. “They drank more beer than we would see as reasonable today,” says Clark. “They saw it as nutritious.”
In the name of nutrition and historical authenticity, Clark began a brewing program at the living history center. By 2015, he had developed four colonial beers of his own, using authentic recipes he pieced together from period manuals. Today, the authentic beers are made by Alewerks, a local brewery, and are on tap in Colonial Williamsburg.
As Clark labors over his wood chips, decorates elaborate pies and dreams up new ways to translate old recipes, he ponders how much food culture has changed. Colonists used spices like nutmeg creatively and favored pickling their foods. Now that we have refrigeration, “our foods are very limited in some ways,” says Clark. “It’s hard to figure out why particular things dropped out of our diet.”
Okay, maybe not frog’s legs and gooseberry pie—but perhaps there’s more to the unfamiliar diet of America’s ancestors than meets the eye.