The Scent of Historic Houses

Today in Vermont it’s below freezing (as in currently 15 below zero), and while the snow-covered branches are beautiful and glistening, it is just not warm anywhere. The only way I can think of to be warm today is to heat up the house by cooking. Considering cooking is not my domestic forte, this gives some inclination as to how desperate I am for a warmer house.  And I started thinking about what would have been prepared on the antique Hardwick stove in my kitchen. Care to explore food of a historic house with me?

Do you associate certain foods with different eras in history? Do you ever think that your ca. 1910 house would have different meals prepared and served than your ca. 1850 or ca. 1940 house (that is, until they existed together)? What we think about most is probably how different regions have unique culinary traditions.

In the same way that appearance and noise are important to historically accurate interpretations of settings, scents and smells can play a significant role as well. Scents have the power to transport people back in time, usually in a good, nostalgic way, and can help people recall distant memories and scenes. For example, when we think of fall, we think apples, hay, pumpkin, leaves — the smells of fall. Winter smells like pine and cinnamon or snow and bitter cold. It is amazing how we can assign a smell to an event.

Now think to your favorite residential building, someplace with a kitchen where you could or can gather over meals. It doesn’t have to be a prominent historic site like a house museum. When was that house built? What do you think it would have smelled like then? What does it smell like now? Each period of history has signature foods. What do you think they will be in the early 20th century? Will it be a split of health fanatic households v. convenience food households? Perhaps a house from 2012 will only smell of coffee in the morning, nothing in the middle of the day, and a good, family meal some nights of the week? (This is of course a generalization, as each family has its own routine.)

Food has changed because of technology and because our lifestyles have changed. This article, “Dining Through the Decades: 100 Years of American Cuisine,” offers an entertaining overview of such facts. The website, Food Timeline gives a summary of food throughout time, years of product invention and food introduction, as well as summaries of food throughout the 20th century decades. In the 1920s segment of the food timeline, for example, foods are discussed as the Great Gatsby dining or speakeasy dining and cocktails, which may not necessarily reflect farmers in rural American. However, technology innovations are included, too. Combining the knowledge of which food were available and what technology existed, go a long way in deciphering what people may have eaten (aside from first hand accounts).

And lastly, do you think it is important – for house museums and historic sites, not necessarily your own residential house – to smell historically accurate? Beyond that, when should foods be prepared as they would have been historically? Many historical recipes have been adapted for modern ingredients and modern kitchens. Is preserving the methods of food preparation just as important as preserving the smells of historical foods?