The next time someone you cook for complains about helping with the dishes, consider booking a visit to Genesee Country Village and Museum.
The living history museum features performers in historic dress playing 19th century folks going about their daily business, including cooking their family meals. Telling children they have things easy today is weak medicine compared with giving them a turn at an everyday chore of the early 1800s: pounding corn.
Lift the heavy wooden pestle and thud it into corn kernels in a hollowed-out log, and glimpse what kitchen work was like. "It takes about an hour of pounding for one cup of cornmeal," said Pat Mead, lead interpreter of historic foodways. "This is why you had many children back then, because they would be pounding continuously."
There are a hundred such moments of discovery tucked into the museum's exploration of how shopping, cooking and eating has changed in the last 200 years. Located in Mumford, between Batavia and Rochester, the museum has 68 historic buildings, including three or four working kitchens used by cooks who show and tell visitors how people fed themselves at the time.
Saturday and Sunday, the museum continues its Maple Sugar Festival, including a sort of crash course in the work kids had to do for sweets. Because, in the Western New York of the early 1800s, if your family didn't make maple sugar, Mead said, you may have had none at all.
So families trudged out to a "sugarbush," or stand of maple trees, drilled holes in trunks and hammered in taps. Then came the real work: carrying the sap, bucket by bucket, to the boiling cauldrons, where it was evaporated down to syrup over wood fires.
They carried 40 gallons of sap for every gallon of syrup. Then there was the woodchopping, to fuel the hours and days of boiling.
The entire enterprise was driven by muscle power, except for the occasional ox cart. Yet springtime sugaring was a festive time of year, Mead said. "You've had your cabin fever all winter long, and now you're getting out with your family members and kids, doing all this," she said. "Your slave labor, your kids, are going out and getting the buckets, and the wife would be there, tending the fire."
The museum has a bunch of other maple-centric events planned as well, including a maple cooking contest and a pancake breakfast (there's an extra charge) with plentiful maple syrup.
The museum's three historic kitchens will be in action as well. One will be making cough syrup from a period recipe, using maple syrup, vinegar and honey. Another will make carrots with maple. Elsewhere, interpreters will be making hot chocolate the 1800s way -- crushing cocoa nibs and adding spices and sugar, but using water instead of milk. At the smokehouse, pork from pigs raised at the museum will be hanging over a smoky fire, getting preserved for the year ahead.
At the brewery, there'll be beer-making under way. Bakers will stop by to gather barm, the yeasty byproduct of the top-fermenting process, to use in their breads.
As the American interest in do-it-yourself food has increased over the recent decade, the museum has reacted by adding more programs exploring food, said Brian Nagel, the museum's director of interpretation. On March 31, the museum has an all-day symposium exploring the components of a "ploughman's lunch" -- bread, cheese, pickles and beer.
"What's great for us is that we're inspiring excitement and curiosity about the past," Nagel said. "One thing that's a touchpoint, if you will, for people to connect with people of the past, is looking at food. It's something that everyone is into today, whether for sustenance or celebration."
The modern supermarket system has left many in the dark about food facts, he said. "What we discover is that a lot of folks don't know or understand where food comes from," he said. "Showing them vegetables right from the garden, still with dirt on them that you're washing off, cutting off the tops of carrots -- kids have never seen that."
The museum's food programs are centered around its three working kitchens -- two more than living history museums at Williamsburg, Va., and Sturbridge, Mass., Mead said. For historic interpreters, the kitchens are a powerful educational tool, she said. "The thing is, everybody has to eat."
The Pioneer Farmstead, in an original log building, represents an early 1800s cabin kitchen, cooking over an open hearth.
At that time, storing food for the winter relied on a root cellar for vegetables, pickling, salting and smoking. "Canning isn't used yet," said Mead. "When we are preserving, we are covering our crocks with stretched pig's bladders. That's what's used to make airtight seals."
With wood fire the only source of heat, "You have to learn that you bank your coals, so you can bring them out to start a fire," she said. "The fire would be going all the time, or you would have hot coals." Without matches, people carried containers of coals to start fires.
"At the cabin we go through an acre of wood per year for heating and cooking," Mead said. "That's a lot of wood to cut."
With the advent of cast-iron stoves, people could get twice the heat from half as much wood, said Mead. The Jones Farm building contains a kitchen set in the 1840s, representing the home of a farmer successful enough to buy a cast-iron stove, and build an addition to become the new cooking space.
"People were skeptical of the cast iron," said Mead. "There were even some political cartoons that said it would be the downfall of the American family, because they weren't going to be around the open hearth anymore."
The stove was manufactured in Buffalo, said Mead, and contains an oven, as well as room to heat pots and pans. It required new cast-iron cookware, as all the hearth pots had legs so they could stand in coals.
At this time, home cheesemaking was widespread, as housewives turned surplus milk into stable forms. Local stores were buying cheese and eggs from locals as well as selling, Mead said, with far-reaching effects.
"Once you get money, the women start to have power," Mead said. "Before this they didn't have access to money, it was all the husband. This is starting to change women's lives."
By the 1850s, the Erie Canal had given townsfolk access to a surprising array of food and kitchen possibilities, a time the museum explores through its Livingston-Backus House.
The most "modern" of the museum's three kitchens, owned by a Dr. Backus, it boasts a refrigerator -- the name given to ice-cooled food preservation chests at the time. (They weren't called "iceboxes" until the electric ones emerged and people wanted to distinguish them, said Mead.)
But it was the canal that caused the most radical change. "We can get bananas, and we can get pineapples," said Mead, speaking in the re-enactor's present tense, "not on a regular basis, but whenever they were shipped up. Coconuts. We have recipes that used them."
Canned food, preserved for storage and transport, had also arrived by the 1850s. "The biggest thing they would have canned were oysters," said Mead. "Now you could have oysters anytime, and there were lots of receipts with oysters in them."
In this kitchen, a hired cook works on pastries, Mead said. "Now there are teas going on in the house," she said, to tide people over because the main meal is later at night.
Dinners are changing, too. "Before, as in farm life, your big meal was at noon, with leftovers for dinner. Dr. Backus' hours are different, and he has gas lights, illumination for meals in the evening.
"Your dinners are becoming bigger," Mead said. "Things are beginning to change."
Genesee Country Village and Museum
1410 Flint Hill Road, Le Roy
Admission, $8.50; children, $6.50; 3 and younger, or members, free.
Maple Festival: March 24-25; sugaring program, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; pancake breakfast, 9 a.m.- 1 p.m. (breakfast, $8; $6 for youth and free for ages 3 and under).For more, go to gcv.org.