Firkins, noggins, spiders, and piggens. These are a few of the curious names for the mysterious objects now on display at the East Hampton Historical Society’s Clinton Academy Museum in “What’s Cooking in East Hampton Kitchens 1648-1948,” a charming and quirky exhibit offering a view of how our ancestors prepared their meals, churned their butter, shucked their clams, and toasted their bread.
A few years ago, the directors of the Suffolk County, East Hampton, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, and Southampton Historical Societies got together and brainstormed about putting together similar exhibits relating in some way to what ends up on the dining table. Some chose paintings of farms, another a show of decoys and duck hunting. Frank Newbold, chairman of the East Hampton Historical Society’s collections committee, and Richard Barons, committee, and Richard Barons, the society’s director, were always fascinated with the apparatus of preparing food. And thus, “What’s Cooking,” on display through Columbus Day weekend, was born.
The largest piece in the exhibit is an Ideal Stewart stove, once owned by Adele Lamb. It began as a wood-burning oven and over time was transformed by the family to a coal and then a gas oven. An iron teakettle, square and modern looking, is the perfect size to be tucked into a small opening at the bottom of the oven.
I had the good fortune of getting a private tour with Mr. Barons on a very dark, stormy morning. As he led me through the butter churners and cheese ladders, grinders and mills, I could imagine the voice of East Hampton-born Catherine Beecher reminding 19th-century homemakers that they were “the sovereigns of an empire” who “should regard their duties as dignified, important, and difficult.” Difficult, indeed! Someone had to carve that pie crimper out of whalebone. The Montaukett Indians constructed meticulous pot scrubbers from branches and twigs and twine. Sieves were molded out of animal skins and sewn with the sinew.
Some of the simplest tools have been adorned with personal flourishes. One skimmer doesn’t simply have holes punched through its brass pan, the holes have been punched out in a lovely flower petal pattern. The handles of some tools are heart-shaped. Cookie cutters are even more elaborate than today, a leaf-shape cutter has veins, a fish cutter fins and gills, a happy gingerbread man is waving. There is even a doughnut cutter from 1900. Hey, maybe the Montaukett Indians and original European settlers were frying up the first Dreesen’s doughnuts together!
Some of the wooden tools were carved from lignum vitae, or ironwood, a tree found on islands in South America and brought back by whalers. A few of the more fascinating pieces are the ones created from recycled items. An apple peeler is jerry-rigged with a spike from a tin rotisserie spit. A chopper is constructed from a hay cutter. A sausage stuffer is made with a finial similar to those found on the Dominys’ four-poster beds.
Besides some other beautiful wooden pieces by the Dominy family, there are many familiar local names whose kitchen utensils and tools are part of the show: Mulford, Edwards, Gardiner, and Hedges. Adelaide de Menil and Ted Carpenter donated some intriguing pieces, including a long-handled frying pan and revolving grill.
One of the more practical but diabolical sounding pieces in the exhibit is the “baby cage.” Resembling a stand-up high chair with a little compartment for perhaps food or toys, it is displayed by the hearth tools. “Well, as you can imagine,” Mr. Barons points out to me, “the mother is probably cooking over an open fire either indoors or out, and can’t keep her baby out of harm’s way while she’s tending to her cooking.” So Baby gets plopped into the cage for safety’s sake. He then discreetly points down at the little holes drilled through the bottom of the box-shape baby container. “For drainage.” Oh, my.
There are beautiful jugs and porringers made of redware, some covered with lead glaze. George Washington is credited with discovering the dangers of lead glaze and convincing potters to make vessels with stoneware instead.
As I cook at home and professionally in a restaurant, I take for granted the KitchenAid mixer, food processor, Japanese Benriner grater and Global knives, microplaners, refrigeration, and the convection oven for fast, even baking.
“What’s Cooking” not only gives us a greater appreciation for our modern conveniences in the kitchen, it shows the artistry and creativity of those who made these tools and equipment hundreds of years ago. It isn’t just about history, it is about home and hearth.