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It's All About the Food

Sideboard professional faux food display at Mt. Vernon

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things about visiting historic houses or museums was seeing the beautiful food displays on the table. Perhaps this owes itself in part to my Italian heritage (most Italians will tell you that there are more special occasion photographs of the food than of the people!). These shiny, perfect-looking table displays always seemed to fill an otherwise unoccupied house with life; surely at any moment, the family would be sitting down to enjoy these artful examples of deliciousness? It added an air of warmth to the experience to be able to envision those who once lived there, sitting down together for a meal in that very room. It’s something most can relate to, which lends itself to a feeling of connection to the past.

Mrs. Covenhoven awaits the unwelcome but expected visit of General Sir Henry Clinton
An Unwelcome Visit by artist Charlie Swerdlow of History Depicted, Copyright 2023

We will soon be opening our new exhibit Choices at Covenhoven House in Freehold, which explores the choices our Revolutionary War-era forebears were faced with on a daily basis. To which side should their loyalty lie? Should they abandon their homes and flee to safety, or stay and defend it as Mrs. Covenhoven did? For the enslaved, should they trust in the British promises of freedom if they left their Patriot enslavers and fought for the Crown?

Not every choice was unique, but certainly every experience was personal.

It has been fascinating (as always) watching our curators Bernadette and Joe do the research and careful work to create this exhibit. My job as Director of Education is to build a program for students that incorporates the exhibit material as well as introduces them to many other facets of life in the Colonial Era. Was my first thought to explain how to spin flax into linen, or to tell them what kinds of herbal remedies were available, or to discuss the basics of travel or hygiene in the Colonial Era? Nope. It was all about the food. 

I began shopping around online to see what kinds of fake food were available for purchase. More specifically, I needed to find examples that would have been on the Covenhovens’ table in the 18th century, so this made the task a bit more complicated. I was met with very plastic, very disappointing, very…well, fake looking examples. I did find a fantastic Twinkie with a bite out of it and some really impressive McDonald’s fries, but these were not going to work. I began researching where all the best museums get their food displays from and discovered that many actually make their own! From elaborate silicone mold structures to fast-rising polyurethane foams, there were a number of ways that this incredibly realistic food was created. Amazing! And then it hit me - MCHA does not have a fake food specialist on staff like Mt. Vernon or Colonial Williamsburg. Well, being a novice at museum quality fake food but a very experienced Play-Doh user as a child, I decided to start slowly and attempt something out of a simple air-dry clay and paint. The Covenhovens certainly would have been familiar with string beans, and that seemed easy enough. We all know what string beans look like, right? Roll a bumpy rope, taper the end, and zip a line down the middle.

Green beans in a redware platter

I let them dry in the sun for a day, gave them a spray with dark green, then a light, random spray with lighter green for some color variation. Not bad! Now to plate them. I couldn’t use just any old plate, I had to have something that looked historically accurate. Redware was a common style of tableware in the 18th century. I started looking at Colonial reproduction sites and found these plates and platters to be quite nice, and also quite pricey. $65 for a small platter? Hm. Not on my watch. I went to Home Goods and bought a plain white platter for $10. After a minor disaster with peeling paint after spray painting the glossy ceramic and then needing to strip it off, I sprayed it with some chalk paint first as a primer. Then two coats of redware-colored spray paint, a little design as would have been common for the time, some clear gloss, and you have a very passable redware platter for about 20 bucks.

After having been mildly traumatized by the platter paint disaster, I opted for a nice $3 wooden bowl for my peas. Historically accurate and easy! The peas were easy enough to roll, but I sure as heck wasn’t rolling 2,000 to fill the bowl. I made a base layer of clay and formed it around the spoon. I then made just enough peas to cover it up and used the same two-tone paint technique as for the string beans.

My latest project was a skillet cornbread. I used the same idea of building up the interior, this time using a foam disc. I rolled out a round piece of clay like you would for a pie crust, and then rolled over that with the rough side of a dish cloth for a bumpy texture. Having very little patience (also attributed to my Italian heritage, although maybe it's just specific to New Jersey...) I thought I’d speed up the drying process and put the disc with the clay on top in a low oven at 200 degrees. In hindsight, that was too hot, but at 11:30 at night it sounded reasonable. Good thing I checked after five minutes - the edges had curled up significantly. The foam disc was obviously not meant to be heated. But miraculously, I was able to press down the sides, and it actually gave it that kind of cracked, wavy-edged, baked look that it should have! So it was a happy accident. A little paint and some glaze, and the kids can picture a hot skillet cornbread coming out of the hearth.

I have a few more things on my list that I’d like to attempt; stew sounds like a challenge, but also fun, so that will probably be next. I’ll fill a few wine glasses with some colored resin, which doesn’t seem too difficult. But I have also purchased a few items that I suspect are above my ability, such as a full-sized turkey, some fruit-covered flakey pastries, and two sunny side-up silicone eggs with that perfect jellyish consistency. I hope when you all come to visit, you'll feel the warmth of a table full of the same kinds of food the Covenhovens would have shared with you in their home!

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