High Point Museum keeps the fires burning
Thin wisps of smoke drift from the chimney of the oldest building in High Point, a two-room log cabin built in 1754 that was once the home of Mary and Phillip Hoggatt and their seven children but now sits on the grounds of the High Point Museum as a testament to the hardships of pioneer life in the South.
Inside Teri Teague, dressed in period garb from the 18th century, is experiencing hardships of her own.
“We’re having a little problem with the fire this morning,” she says, “and obviously, with no fire you can’t cook.”
She’s got the raw materials for an authentic homestead meal on a side table: cabbage, butternut squash, a pumpkin, a chicken, butter and such. Megan MacKenzie squats before the hearth in layered dress and a tricorn hat, blowing the embers to a strong glow through a long tube, and a smattering of hog jowls sputters to life in an iron skillet that hangs by a hook over the burgeoning fire.
Teri has bathed the chicken in butter and now she hangs it over the flames with a string. She halves a butternut squash – “You wanna mix some of these squash seeds in with the pumpkin seeds?” – drops it in a Dutch oven and places it on the periphery of the fire.
“If we’re here and we got a fire,” she says, “we cook. We say we can cook anything over here except probably soufflÃ©.”
She cores out the cabbage and drops it in a pot of water. She cuts an onion coarsely and shoves the pieces into the folds of the cabbage. Ditto with some mushrooms, green pepper and sausage for a dish called “forced cabbage” which will simmer for a couple of hours on the side of the fire. She’ll also make a forced pumpkin, what she calls “the original apple pie,” whereby a hollowed-out pumpkin is stuffed with layers of apples, cinnamon, nutmeg and whatnot.
“It dudn’t look good, I’m gonna tell you that,” Teri says. “It sounds awful but it’s good.”
Pinto beans go in a pot and hang on a hook over the fire. Later they’ll get a ham hock. The hog jowls cook down in the skillet.
“They did not waste anything [back then],” Teri says. “They ate every part of the pig except the squeal.”
Teri and Megan, both seasoned historical reenactors, strive for authenticity but sometimes make alterations to suit modern tastes and availability of ingredients.
That means they use garlic, though it would have been scarce in the High Point hills back in 1750, and green pepper, which was an exotic fruit in the days of yore.
“Since we’re gonna eat it,” Teri says, “we change it a little to suit our tastes.”
Back in the day, all the women on the farm woke up early and restoked the fire for breakfast. The men would eat and then tend the fields while the women hustled up the midday meal, the biggest of the day. The evening meal was mostly leftovers. All dishes relied solely on what was available on the farm – “When something was in season,” Teri says, “they might have fifteen or twenty things to do with apples.” And cooking was a full-time job.
“You didn’t let the fire go out,” she says. “That’s grounds for divorce.”
The fire’s going pretty good now and Teri pulls hot coals from underneath the flames, moves them underneath the various pots and Dutch ovens she’s got on the periphery of the hearth.
“This right here is the hardest part,” she says. “Once you got these coals you got to know how to keep feeding them to these pots.”
She’ll be at it all day.
The forced cabbage will be ready to eat in a couple hours. The chicken, dancing on its string above the fire, will be ready by dusk. The corn, unshucked and warming in a pot of water, will be thrown on the coals to cook quickly right before supper. The hog jowls, which taste like thick, fatty bacon, sit in a bowl on a crude table.
Four tourists come into the cabin and huddle near the hearth. Teri pushes a strand of hair into her bonnet and goes into her spiel.
“We say they used to eat every part of the pig except the squeal,” she says. And the fire crackles and smokes.
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.