Food for Thought: what is “food”?

We often explain ourselves in terms of food.  Take a look at social media and invariably there will be something about food or cooking.  (It’s so pandemic that my significant other took a picture of the grill the other night, albeit it did look nice with its smorgasbord.) Most of us don’t think too much about what where our food comes from.  I don’t necessarily mean from the Mexico via the grocery store or from our backyard garden.  How did our food become our food? Why did we select these plants or animals for our food sources?

I always find examples better illustrate arguments so here are two: 1. How did Italy becomes associated with tomatoes when they were originally domesticated in South America and the closest European related plant, belladona, is poisonous? 2. According to archaeologists acorns are a ‘starvation food source’ (food that a population turns too when there is food stress eliminating more viable foods sources) when they can be detoxified with little to no effort and food such as corn take a long time to process correctly through nixtamalization.

I suppose the easiest answers boil down to cultural trends; what a group of people label as food vs non food.  Europeans tend to think of dogs and cats as non food items where other cultures readily consume them and own ancestors did in the past. Its just amazing to think that our ancestors, most likely through trial and error, discovered what plants or animals were worth their while to become food and which were not.  This leads to certain species being favored as food in certain regions.

*For anyone who is curious there are answers to the two examples posed earlier. * According to one of my European history classes, an early entrepreneur in the shipping industry brought the tomato back to Italy.  He widely advertised that he would eat a large amount of them in full view of the public.  This caught many people’s attention since they believed the tomato was inedible and even poisonous. They came to watch him eat these strange things and die (public executions were great spectacles back in the day).  When he ate the tomatoes and didn’t die, the public relation stunt worked and tomatoes began to gain popularity.

The second example is a little bit harder to address.  Most of our written records of people eating acorns comes from populations under stress such as Native Americans forced off of their traditional lands.  Forced off of their traditional lands they may have relied on a food sources that they were previously familiar with.  Europeans were most likely bias in their reporting of acorn consumption since its for Europeans a ‘non food’ source.

All about Sheep

This week on the farm we had our first lambs of the season born.  Molly, who has never given birth to twins, gave birth to two little boys on Easter Sunday. Which prompted this weeks post about sheep.

Sheep are ruminants meaning that they have 4 chambers in their stomach to assist with digestion.  This process combines mastication (chewing with teeth, get your heads out of the gutter) and fermentation to increase the amounts of nutrients received from eating plants. Sheep are usually kept for their fur-commonly called wool-, meat, and/or milk.  Here on the farm we tend to use their wool most often and shear the sheep in the spring.  Wild sheep tend to come in shades for brown while domesticated sheep are in many colored varieties from dark browns to white.  Humans began selectively breeding sheep to have lighter coats to make it easier to dye the wool.

Sheep have a 5 month gestation period.  Since our sheep were breed in mid-December we should start having more lambs soon.  We only have one ram, Perry, in the Quiet Valley herd.  This protects our visitors from over aggressive rams and the sheep from each other.  Male rams often fight to establish dominance by ramming or headbutting each other.  Most female sheep, or ewes, have one to two lambs at a time.  Most lambs are born with long tails which are docked short for health reasons.  (If tails are left long, fecal matter can build up and encourage disease from flies.)

According to the University of Illinois, sheep are rather intelligent animals.  They rank right under pigs, which are considered one of the most intelligent mammals. Sheep can easily recognize faces and facial expressions.  We experienced this the other day during on of our programs. When I walked through the room where the class was taking place the sheep bleated very loudly startling all of us.  She was saying hello and reminding me to feed her.

Sheep play a big part in our culture from religious symbols to childhood songs to truck brands and even sayings.  Some of my favorite things about sheep are all of the phrases around them.  To be sheepish is to be shy. The black sheep in a group or family is the out of place person.  You can count sheep when you need to fall asleep.  And perhaps my favorite is that  a group of people who go along with something without thinking are called sheeple. So that’s a little bit about sheep.

A year of PA German Holidays: Easter

Easter is right around the corner.  Most of our Easter celebration come from the Germans and traveled over the seas with them to America.  The Easter Bunny, Easter Eggs, and Easter candy all have their roots in German traditions.

Like Santa Claus or the Christ Child, The Easter Bunny would traditionally come the night before the holiday and leave gifts of eggs, candy and perhaps toys for the good children. Traditionally children would make a nest for the Oschter Haws or Osterhase (Easter Hare). In the morning good children would find treats in their nest and bad children’s would be empty (or filled with rabbit poo). This nest has now been supplanted by Easter baskets and the fresh eggs with candy filled ones.

At first glance it doesn’t seem like chicken eggs have a lot to do with rabbits.  But chickens and rabbits can actually co-habitat in the same enclosure.  Its pretty easy to image a young child going to feed the chickens and finding a rabbit resting on an egg and then their imagination abounds.  During the spring, chickens begin laying more eggs; after having hardly any eggs all winter its a little overwhelming to find uses for them all.  Often times, mischievous farm boys would hide the eggs from their mother in the days leading up to Easter. Then the eggs would mysteriously appear Easter morning.

Perhaps the abundance of eggs in the spring lead to the traditions of decorating them.  Egg decorating has ancient roots with some of the oldest examples being ostrich eggs dating back over 60,000 years ago.  Eggs can be simply dyed, intricately painted, caved or pierced, or a combination there of.  Perhaps some of the most famous decorated eggs are the Pysanky eggs done in Ukrainian. These eggs are dyed by applying multiple layers of wax to the surface of the eggs and dyed in a series of colored baths.




Just for Nice: Scherenschnitte

One of the things I’ve always found interesting about the Pennsylvania Germans is their folk art such as hex signs on barns and frakturs. Scherenschnitte (pronounced something like Sharon-Sh-knit-a) is the German and Pennsylvania German tradition of cutting paper.  Traditionally these paper designs were done by folding the paper and cutting to make a continuous design.  Like what we did in childhood to make snow flakes or paper dolls that hold hands.

In the beginning, scherenschnitte were often used as decorative pieces for birth certificates, love letters, and marriage certificates. These tended to incorporate flowers, birds, and hearts.  Since paper was originally expensive, old letters or newspaper were often used.  This offers some unique insight into the lives of the people who made them. During the Victorian Era scherenschnitte was used to make shelf paper for cupboards so that pretty designed dripped over the edge of the shelf.  Or doilies for under cakes and on tables.

Scherenschnitte can also create a picture or tell a story.   For the Germans many of the pictures created were from folk tales.  These images tended to feature people and activities, which shares a lot in common with the French tradition of silhouette cuts.  Silhouettes, white images on black paper, were often cheap forms of art work.  (They were far less expensive then paintings.)

Today, scherenschnitte is still going strong and seems to have gained a following.  With things like exacto-knives the artists are now able to create very delicate and detailed items. Now an artist is limited by their creativity.

I especially like this one which I found on the internet!

I think during the summer season, when Quiet Valley is open to the general public this might be a great way for visitors to get their hands on some history.  They can sit and try their skills at producing some scherenschnitte of their own.



A little over three weeks ago we had piglets born on the farm.  Squeakers, the proud mama, timed it just right and gave birth on March 1st, which is National Pig Day! We even made the front page of the local paper, the Pocono Record.  (Finally some good news on the front page.)

Coming into work at Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm, I knew very little about livestock, thus the baby pigs have been an exciting challenge. My dad, in his twenties, had worked on a pig farm. He told me that if you fell into a pig pen, the hogs would eat you. (That’s why the farm hands freak out when Dorothy falls in during the Wizard of Oz.)  And no degree of Charlette’s Web or Babe could dissuade the thought in the back of my mind that was reinforced by  Criminal Minds; pigs are an excellent way to dispose of a body.   So I have to admit I’m a little surprised by how gentle and loving Squeakers is to her babies. I’ve learned a lot about pigs and wanted to share some of the fun facts about them.

Pigs belong to the genus Sus and fit into the Suidae family, which includes other even-toed ungulates.  This means that their weight is carried evenly across their toes.  To us non-scientific people that translates to animals with cloven toes like deer and pigs are related. (Which, apparently, also includes whales and hippos in the Suidae family.)

Pigs were likely first domesticated in China around 13,000 years ago. Most pigs are omnivores that means they tend to eat the same food as humans.  In one of my anthropology classes, we learned that people who live in desert regions tend not to keep pigs, since they compete for the same food source. It is much better to keep goats and sheep that eat things humans can’t, like grasses and shrubs.

Pigs are very intelligent animals.  They are able to be house trained.  During the 1700s and 1800s many country fairs where home to a Learned Pig.  These animals were often trained to pick up cards to spell words and perform math problems.  They often became a good source of inspiration for cartoonists and satirists.  The most popular pig in the United States appeared in 1798 and was billed as “Toby the Sapient Pig”.  Toby and other learned pigs have made a recent comeback in pop culture .

To end this post I wanted to share one of my favorite pop culture fun facts with you.  This is from the “Famous Pig Song” recorded by Clarke van Ness.

‘Twas an evening in October, I’ll confess I wasn’t sober,

I was carting home a load with manly pride,

When my feet began to stutter and I fell into the gutter,

And a pig came up and lay down by my side.

Then I lay there in the gutter and my heart was all a-flutter,

Till a lady, passing by, did chance to say:

“You can tell a man that boozes by the company he chooses,”

Then the pig got up and slowly walked away.


Band Boxes, a historic craft

Hat and bandboxes  1825-50 from Shelburne Museum.

Reenactors, historians, and the general public often marvel at the creativity of our historic counterparts.  They were able to make from simple tools and equipment ingenious solutions to everyday problems.  Imagine us trying to do the same things without Google.  Recently I learned about band boxes during a training activity.

Band boxes are a catch-all term for decorative boxes constructed primarily from pasteboard with wallpaper on the outside and newspaper on the inside.  For an example, think of hat boxes. (Pasteboard is a thin board made from gluing multiple sheets together.  It has the thickness of thin cardboard or watercolor paper.) Wallpaper went on the outside because it is a bit more durable then regular paper to protect against usage and ware.  Inside the newsprint helps protect the contents from insects.

Band boxes started in the 1500s as a way to keep men and women’s ruffled collars from getting squished.  Pretty soon it wasn’t just for collars but for gloves, combs, hats, pins, ribbons, etc. In the beginning, people often made the boxes themselves.  Historically, for some women this was their only creative outlet. Band boxes seemed to reach their height of popularity during the 17th through the 19th century. The Victorians particularly liked having a box for ever purpose.

In America, perhaps the best known band boxes were made by Hannah Davis.  She began making band boxes after her parents died in 1818.  She used wood instead of pasteboard. Davis sold her boxes to the girls who worked in the fabric factories along the Merrimack River, including the famous Lowell Mill fabric factory. Small boxes tended to be about 5 cents while large ones that could be used as suitcases for clothing cost about 50 cents.  Peddlers would often sell them on the street like seen in this print by William Marshall Craig from 1808. 

Right now I’m trying make my own band box.  Thus far the trickiest part seems to be trying to sew the base to the sides evenly.  I’ve got a lot of lopsided boxes if anyone is interested.

Maple Sugaring

The sap boiling down in kettles.


On Saturday February 25th, we made maple sugar from the sap we’ve been collecting.  In about a week we had collected over 140 gallons of sap.  It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.  So we are hoping to get about 3.5 gallons of finished syrup; this syrup gets used throughout the year for demonstrations particular at the bake oven where they make a maple wheat bread.  (Yum.)

Maple Sugaring Day is a special members only event that gives Quiet Valley’s members a chance to participate in a unique experience.  Along with seeing the maple syrup getting made they get a chance to sample pancakes with our homemade syrup, eggs boiled in sap, and potatoes cooked in a dutch oven over the flames.  The sap is poured into four large kettles and boiled for hours.   It is a strong rolling boil.  Sap needs to be added continuously to the boiling kettles.  Normally we would do this all day but this year we were trying to beat the thunderstorms, thus we stopped adding fresh sap around 10am to have things cleaned up by 1pm.

Sue and Gary Oiler, the founders of the museum, gave a couple great presentations for the 83 visitors who joined us.  Sue talked about the food we were making and why.  Maple Sugaring usually takes place in late winter and since the fires need to be tended continuously people usually slept where they were making maple syrup. They’d be cooking there too. Historically this time of year they would be eating a lot of potatoes before they start growing in the cellar.  We diced them up and baked them in the dutch ovens, which are small portable ovens.  Chickens lay eggs in proportion to the amount of sunlight they get. As the sunlight increases, the chickens begin to lay more eggs.  The eggs are dropped right into the kettles of the sap and boiled for about 15 minutes.  Then they are hard boiled and a little sweet from the sap.

Gary demonstrating how to make a spile.

Gary did a talk on how to tap the trees and helped the visitors make wooden spiles from elk horn sumac.  Once the pith is scraped out its very easy taper one end to fit into the tree and the other to direct the sap. Some of the children used the stems of ferns to hang cups from their spiles and collect the sap.

The children collect their own sap.

As the big kettles of sap boiled down, they were consolidated into two kettles and then down into one kettle.  Once that one was down to about 6 gallons we poured it into glass jars.  This was to help keep the syrup until we could boil it down a little bit more inside a building as the storms were coming. The sap was funneled into the jars and through a thick piece of felt to clean out any debris. (I used a coffee filter at home.)  When the syrup was poured out of the kettles, we used pancakes to get the rest of the syrup at the bottom.  It was delicious.  Want to try some of the Quiet Valley homemade syrup? Come out to the Pocono Craft Festival or join us next year for Maple Sugaring!


Gathering Maple Sugar

Maple sap dripping from the spile.

Each Spring, Quiet Valley makes its own maple sugar.  We all love the sweet, sticky sap that comes from these types of trees for our pancakes and for adding to all sorts of recipes, such as maple ginger salmon. This past week we started tapping the trees around the farm.  A good tap tree is about 10 to 20 inches in diameter, which makes the tree about 40 years old.  A tap is drilled into the tree and a small metal tube called a spile is inserted into the tree. The sap runs down the spile and spills into a waiting container.  In our case those are sterilized glass jars but these can be buckets or even special bags.  I was really surprised to see that the sap was clear.  (I had assumed it was going to be colored.)

The sap is clear in the bucket. Please excuse my foot in the photo; it’s keeping the bucket from falling over.

The jars are collected twice a day, but with how quickly the sap is flowing now, it might be three times a day.  Once enough maple sap is collected then we have a Maple Sugaring Event which is open to all members of Quiet Valley.  During this event the sap is heated in big vats and refined into the syrup we love.

The glass jars collecting sap.

How does this work? During the summer, the trees store sugar and nutrients in their roots. In the Spring, when the weather begins to warm, the sap begins to return to the top of the tree to help grow the leaves.  The best time to gather the sap is when it is warm during the day and cold at night.  That way the sap runs better.  You don’t have to stop at just tapping maple trees but can also tap birch trees, black walnuts, hickory and box elder. This Saturday, February 25th, we’ll be cooking down the sap and making maple sugar.

Who are you?


Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm primarily uses first person interpretation for its tours and programs.  That means all the interpreters, for better or worst, are in a particular time period and relate to someone  workings of the farm during that time. (In other words, they portray on original family member of the farm or one of their fictional children, cousins, siblings, hired hands, etc.) To clarify my above statement there are some things that first person interpretation does work very well and is a great way to demonstrate living history by making it engaging and dynamic. Notwithstanding,  I am currently struggling with who my character and who they are on the farm.

I fall into an age gap where I’m too young to be a direct member of the families who owned the farm Johan Simon Meyer’s family (1820s) or the Peter Marsh (1850s). But I’m too old to be any of their children. For a bit of help here is the Quiet Valley Family Tree.  To get around this, my character is going to be descended from a sister of Johan Simon Meyer named Catherine.  (That solves a couple of problems: 1. I can’t forget any of my character’s matralineal line because they will all be C/Katherines and 2. if I need to change time period between 1820s, 1850s, and 1890s, I just add/subtract C/Katherines. So I could be Katherine Zepper Meyer’s daughter, Catherine’s, daughter etc. ) 

One of the first characters I’m developing is a schoolmarm to help with spring school tours.  Again though, I come up with the problem of my age.  A woman in her mid to late 20s would traditionally be married during the 1890s.  If I was married during the late 1800s, then I legally couldn’t be a schoolmarm in the state of Pennsylvania.  That got me thinking about possibly portraying  a widow and then I’d be able to speak to more interesting social trend in my interpretation.


A display from “Death Becomes Her” a costume display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014.

Historically people were widowed or widowers much more often then today.  During the late 1800s, there were many social conventions that dictated periods of mourning and rules for widows.  Wealthy women would often be in mourning for 2 or more years during which time they didn’t participate in society.  They were excluded from shopping or attending weddings, balls, or social functions.  For the first year they wore black often with a veil and then for the second year grays and pale purples.  By the third year they could start introducing colors again to their wardrobe.

But what about working women who couldn’t afford to buy new clothes for mourning and still needed to work?  Often these women would remarry after they were widowed, particular if their were young children.  If the children were older and she could be financial independent, the widow tended not to remarry.  This was because as a widow she was entitled to a winder participation in society then her married counterparts.  (Widows could own property and in some states and countries even could vote.)  Older women tended not to remarry either. Younger women who didn’t remarry were, at times, viewed poorly by society for not following social conventions. That maybe a detail I’ll have to work out but at least I’ve got an idea to begin.  So now I have to work on adding a little gray or black to my costume. (perhaps pictures to follow.)

A year of PA German Holidays: Happy Fastnacht Day (almost)


This week I had a chance to learn about Pennsylvania Dutch holidays throughout the year.  Each year, Quiet Valley school tour staff participate in a workshops to stay up to date on the most recent research and learn new items to incorporate into their interpretation. Our first training of the year focused on the traditions and culture of this area of Pennsylvania during the early 1800s.

In this part of Pennsylvania many people were of Lutheran or Moravian background which means they followed, and still follow, a liturgical calendar or a church based calendar.  Their celebrations at home followed those of the religious season.  (Not everyone or every groups celebrated the holidays just like how not everyone today celebrates Mardi Gras or Groundhog Day. )

One of the most interesting (sounding) holiday celebrations is around Fastnacht Day, which is actually coming up on February 28th.  Fastnacht Day falls on the day before the liturgical season of lent begins.  Traditionally it is the day when you use up all of your old fat and lard to make doughnuts before lent began.  It was considered bad luck to not use up the fat on this date.  If you did not eat a doughnut on that day then it was believed you would get boils, your chickens would lay no eggs, and worms and bugs would infest your garden.

Also, children had their own fun traditions for the day. The last person to school would be teased.  So children would try to beat their teachers to school.  When the teacher arrived, the boys would crow like a rooster and the girls would cluck like a hen.  I imagine teachers would try and arrive in the middle of the pack so the children could still cluck at them but they wouldn’t get teased by their students.  I hope everyone has a wonderful Fastnacht Day and enjoys making chicken sounds about their schools.