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.


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