A Christmas Blast from the Past

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A century ago, Americans didn’t have to worry about going organic. It was de rigueur, with no processed, genetically modified or chemically laced foods to cause concern. Everything on the menu was natural.

So, how does your organic holiday table measure up against a typical farmstead menu from 1900?

“At Christmas, meats were often pulled from the smoker because hunting for fresh game was more difficult in the snow and cold,” says George Gross, director of Delaware Valley College’s Roth Living Farm Museum in North Wales, Pennsylvania. “Or one of the youngest children might be asked to kill a goose or one of the farm’s chickens that had stopped laying eggs.”

You wouldn’t find ham or pork on the menu, as they were “daily breakfast staples and were not considered fancy,” Gross says.

All kitchen preparations fell to the women. (Has anything changed in your home?) Wives and daughters would clean and dress their holiday deer or rabbit, while boiling and feathering a Christmas chicken or goose. (Feathers were saved for pillows.) Meats were roasted on an open hearth or the oven of a wood stove. Stovetop cooking featured vegetables from the family root cellar: turnips, parsnips, squash and potatoes, most of which were mashed with fresh butter and cream from family cows. Fresh bread was baked earlier in the day.

Desserts were simple, usually a tart made from canned fruit preserved earlier and pie crust rolled and baked that day. As for beverages, families started preparing homemade root beer several weeks before Christmas.

“Folks believed that root beer was an excellent drink for them, thinking the roots killed bacteria in the drinking water, thus making it safer to drink than water,” Gross says. “They hadn’t realized that it was the boiling process that was doing the trick. Had they wanted to drink safer water, they only needed to boil it.”

It took a full day—sometimes longer—to clean, boil and store the assorted roots used for this holiday drink, followed by two weeks of fermenting.

Women would break out their best dinnerware, flatware and glassware, lighting candles for illumination—not atmosphere. And with no refrigeration, meals were carefully planned for only one supper, with no holiday leftovers to enjoy the next day.

If you have a chance to visit Pennsylvania, be sure to stop by the Roth Museum, where Gross tends its 140 acres, a dairy cow, two dairy goats, six sheep and three horses. Depending on the season, you can view sheep-shearing, milking, plowing and planting demonstrations, and antique equipment displays, as well as participate in hands-on activities. Click here for a list of seasonal events.

As for this weekend, enjoy your much-more-modern Christmas dinner!

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