Cooking and Eating at Ephrata

Every year, I try to make it to a session of Ephrata Cloister’s Winter History Class if I possibly can. Since I’m immersed in PHMC’s 2012 foodways theme (The Land of Penn and Plenty), I went the day they were focusing on cooking and eating (have I mentioned that this is my favorite PHMC theme of all time?).

Some of you may be familiar with the Winter History Class. I don’t remember how many years it’s been going on but suffice it to say it’s a tradition. The content varies from year to year and includes overarching topics on the historical background and context of the community at Ephrata as well as very specific examinations of collections and material culture. The audience is a mix of volunteer guides, local historians, and members of the general public looking for intellectual enrichment (not to mention the array of goodies provided at the break).

So anyway. The day I attended there were two parts to the session. Site Administrator Elizabeth Bertheaud talked about 18th-century cooking techniques and implements, highlighting some of the differences and similarities between German traditions and English traditions. She also worked to dispel a few myths, particularly the one about lots of colonial women burning to death when their petticoats caught fire. Elizabeth and members of the audience talked about documentation of cooking-related accidents, pointing out that they made the newspaper or were recorded in someone’s diary or letters because they were noteworthy occurrences, not everyday events. There was also some useful discussion about ways to interpret cooking at the site and ways to help visitors (especially young ones) compare and contrast the familiar with the historical. (Note: Elizabeth will be demonstrating 18th-century cooking at Ephrata on Mother’s Day.)

For the second part of the session, Museum Educator Michael Showalter presented a very informative review of what is, and what is not, known about the eating habits of the community members at Ephrata. Michael paid particular attention to the various research sources that contribute to forming a complex and evolving picture of the community’s foodways—writings by founder Conrad Beissel and other leaders; descriptions by visitors from different time periods; archaeological excavations; and the surviving architecture. He talked about the theological underpinnings of the celibate brothers’ and sisters’ restricted diet. He talked about the diet that Conrad Beissel prescribed for singers. And he talked about the fact we can’t be sure just how closely these directives were followed. Sometimes research reveals more questions than answers—isn’t that why we study history? There were also lots of good questions and comments from the audience, which included Susan Kelleher and Tom Martin from nearby Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum.

I’ve been attending meetings and programs at Ephrata for more than 17 years now, and I always learn something new. If you haven’t visited (or haven’t been there in a while), I think you’ll find it an eye-opener.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Assuming that many of you who are interested in the PHMC and the Trails of History are also interested in your own history, I thought I’d use this space to make you aware of a recent development in genealogy research. Act 110 (which amends the Vital Statistics Law of 1953) has set in motion a partnership between the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, expanding access to birth and death records in the Commonwealth.

Birth records from 1906 and death records from 1906 to 1961 have been indexed and are searchable by name of individual and year of event. Under the new law, birth records will be made public 105 years after they were created, while death records will be open after 50 years, so new records will become available every year. (Prior to 1906, birth and death records were held by counties—more on that in a moment.) To request a record, you must first consult the relevant index to find the state file number. Access to the indices is free.

Sample of death index (state file number circled in red)

With the state file number, you have several options.

You can visit the State Archives Search Room, during regular business hours, and request to see the original records (the Archives will have the online indices available so you can do your initial search there if you haven’t before arriving). The Archives also has copies or microfilm of some pre-1906 records submitted by counties (you can find out more about that here.)

PHMC/PA State Archives

Or you can submit a research-by-mail request to the State Archives (check the website for info on fees for research and copies).

Or you can request a non-certified copy of the record from the Dept. of Health’s Division of Vital Records (application forms and mailing/payment instructions are here.)

The Division of Vital Records is currently working on a project to fully digitize and index the certificates to make them available online and searchable by more variables. Stay tuned!

More Learning Opportunities

We seem to be on something of a roll here about educational opportunities on the Trails of History (with a brief detour for Groundhog Day, which I guess you could consider a teachable moment). Anyway, we might as well keep it rolling.

If you’re a teacher or librarian in grades K-6 working in the Central Susquehanna or Capital Area Intermediate Unit, you may be interested in the PHMC and Pennsylvania Heritage Society partnership with those IUs. Applicants for the 2012-2013 teacher development program (which will focus on the American Revolution and Constitution periods) are now welcome. There is no tuition fee for the program, which is funded by a Teaching American History grant from the US Department of Education. The deadline to apply is March 2; information and application materials are available here. (Guest blogger Rhonda Newton provided a glimpse of last summer’s program here. Details for this summer’s experience will be different, but this gives you an idea.)

We’ve featured the sailing program of the Erie Maritime Museum and Flagship Niagara a number of times, and it always seems to draw interest from Trailheads readers. Recruitment is now underway for high school and college students interested in a unique (yeah, that’s overused, but it fits here) educational experience onboard Niagara(you can find contact info on their website). Students sign up for three-week stints and can, through partnerships between schools and the Flagship Niagara League, receive academic credit. One of the three-week slots has already filled, but enrollment is still available for the following: May 31-June 19 (college level history voyage, which we featured on Trailheads in 2010); June 22-July 12 (high school level voyage); and July 11-31 (college level science voyage). If you’d like to learn first-hand about what students think of this experience, one of last summer’s participants wrote about it for her school newspaper (it was picked up on the “My High School Journalism” blog).

Groundhog Day Plus One

Okay, so now we know what I didn't know when I wrote this on Wednesday. The results were mixed: Punxy Phil says 6 more weeks of winter, but Octoraro Orphie says early spring. We report, you decide.

Also, I want to direct your attention to an introductory interview with PHMC's new executive director, Jim Vaughan, that is now on the PHMC website.

Since I’m writing this on Wednesday, I can’t report on the results of Groundhog Day 2012. Given that it’s 61 degrees here in Harrisburg (on Feb. 1), my money’s on an early spring. But I’ve been wrong before.

The Pennsylvania German roots of our Feb. 2 obsession with whether or not a rodent sees his shadow are fairly well established, although according to Wikipedia (yeah, that’s right) the origins stretch back to ancient pagan practices as well. In southeastern and central Pennsylvania, Grundsow Lodges celebrate the day with social events at which food is served and skits are presented. (That puts me in mind of our 2012 theme of food and foodways in Pennsylvania.) The most famous groundhog is, of course, Punxsutawney Phil, but there are others (not counting the Pennsylvania Lottery’s Gus)—Octoraro Orphie, Susquehanna Sherman, Poor Richard, Dover Doug, and Uni.

This has been such a mild winter so far for most of us that Groundhog Day doesn’t seem to have quite the urgency it does some years. Whether you’re hoping for more winter or an early spring, I hope you’ll take time to learn about some of the history of the day (or watch the movie).