Donned in 19th-century frontier garb, Sharon Martin stood in the dark kitchen at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site on Saturday morning. Guests to the fort’s annual Heritage Holiday event surrounded her, peppering her with questions about the food in front of her.
“What’s this?” one girl asked. An old-fashioned parsnip, Martin replied, before demonstrating further how different produce looked more than 150 years ago.
Across the kitchen, Bob Prinz and Eugene Carroll prepared a seven-course Christmas feast like what might have been served for the holiday at the nearby Chief Factor’s House.
The menu: cabbage soup; a pickled vegetable salad with bread and butter; a mashed potato-and-cabbage mixture known as colcannon, made with smoked salmon; roasted duck; root vegetable stuffing; roasted stuffed acorn squash; and finally an apple and cranberry galette.
With the meal, which likely served around 30 people in “the big house” at the fort, diners would have had wine or beer. They also would have likely finished their meals with coffee, brandy or rum.
Prinz said the meal gives those witnessing its preparation an idea of what an old-fashioned Christmas feast, meant to feed the aristocracy, would be like.
“It’s not so far removed from what they use today,” he said. “In some cases, it’s not as elaborate. In other cases, it’s more elaborate.”
Prinz has volunteered at the fort event for a decade. Martin, who showed off a collection of dried and pickled produce, has volunteered off and on for the past 20 years.
“I like meeting with other people, especially the young people who have not had the experience of not grocery shopping,” said Martin. She enjoys showing people the basics of cooking and gardening.
“I just like being able to teach something that they might not know,” she added.
Guests at Saturday’s event traveled from building to building in the historic fort replica. Each building had volunteers demonstrating what would happen there during the Hudson’s Bay Company era of the mid-1800s. Women were at work embroidering in the Chief Factor’s House. Men were pounding molten steel in the blacksmith shop. Others were demonstrating goods for sale in the store, while others still were crafting things from wood in the carpenter’s shop.
Many of the buildings had special holiday-specific elements. Children could collect hardtack ornaments in the bake shop, wooden ornaments in the blacksmith’s shop and wooden tops in the carpenter’s shop. In the fur house, families made tassels.
Cindy Sacayon came from Portland with her family to Saturday’s event, which they’d been to previously.
Pointing to her two children, Sacayon said she especially loved “how they get to learn about the past and how that impacts the future.”
While the tops were a family favorite, Sacayon’s young daughter Esther said she loved everything.
The holiday event was toned down from years past. There was no wreath making, no wassail drinking and no caroling to be had. But guests still seemed to be enjoying themselves.
‘A whole new concept’
Priscilla Plumb, her husband Andy and their daughter had never been to the fort before. But the Portlanders saw the event and that the buildings would be open, so they decided to venture out.
“The carpentry shop was really cool, seeing all the stuff they’re building in there,” Plumb said.
In the bake house, Sarah Weber, a park guide at Fort Vancouver, stood behind a table, explaining the process she and another volunteer used to make hundreds of hardtack ornaments.
“It’s opening up a whole new concept for people because a lot of people have food available to them nonstop. We have grocery stores — carbohydrates, proteins and fats are all widely available in the foods that we eat today,” said Weber. “However, back then, people who were contracted to work for the company here wouldn’t have that available to them.”
The bake house is where fur trappers would have gotten their rations of hardtack for their fur-trapping brigades. The hard-as-a-rock food made of simply flour and water would have fed not only the trapper but also his family for the winter.
The process stood in stark contrast to the elaborate feast being prepared in the kitchen next door.
Children often are blown away by how different a hardtack food is from their own diet. The food may have had sand in it; the dough would have been touched by people; the flour might not have been clean; it would have been baked in an oven with ash.
“Totally different,” said Weber. “It’s been really cool to show these kids what this is all about.”