(Editors Note: This was the first of hopefully many collaborations between Creative Salem and the Salem Historical Society. Creativity has always been an important part of Salem and it was wonderful to see the handiwork of past architects, painters, artists, designers and of course celebrate the culinary arts along the way with an organization that knows SO much about Salem's past.)
If I had to pick the thing I love most in the world, it would probably be food. But Colonial American history doesn’t trail far behind on the list. So when I received an invitation to an event called “A Taste of Seventeenth-Century Salem,” I knew it was something that I was absolutely not going to miss.
A collaboration between Salem Food Tours, Historic New England’s Gedney House, the Pickering House, and the Witch House, “A Taste of Seventeenth-Century Salem” was an opportunity to tour three 17th century homes while sampling some of the foods that the original inhabitants would have eaten. We started at Gedney House, where we gathered out front before being warmly welcomed by Karen Scalia of Salem Food Tours. After reviewing some 17th century table manners (purely for our edification and amusement of course!), we learned a bit about the house’s background from the site’s passionate and knowledgable manager, Julie Arrison.
All three of the historic houses that served as stops on the tour are what is known in New England architectural parlance as “First Period,” meaning they are some of the earliest homes that exist in America today. The Gedney House was built in 1665, and its interpretation (or rather, lack of interpretation) make it one of the coolest Early American house museums you’ll ever visit. The interior of the structure was stripped in the mid-twentieth century and when the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (known today as Historic New England) acquired it in 1967, they left it just as it was. Today you can tour the Gedney House to see the bare bones of a First Period structure and to really examine how all of the pieces fit together. It’s skeletal and stark and truly incredible.
At Gedney House we were treated to fresh oysters from Turner’s Seafood, three different kinds of cider from Far From The Tree, and a special bonus of salted rosemary popcorn (not strictly speaking a 17th century food, but historic in it’s own right, as corn has been cultivated in New England for thousands of years). I had never eaten a raw oyster before that night, and I was equal parts intrigued and terrified. But being the adventurous sort, I squeezed on some lemon and spooned on the cocktail sauce and threw it back. Only the oyster did not detach from the shell. It took a few more attempts before I actually consumed oyster, but I kind of liked it. It tasted like the ocean. (The next night at Sea Level on Pickering Wharf, my suspicions of oyster deliciousness were confirmed when I ate one successfully on the first try.)
Our next stop was the ancient Pickering House, built in 1660. Docent Jeff Swartz led the way there and immediately began sharing his vast knowledge of the house and the Pickering family, who’s most famous member, Colonel Timothy, fought in the Revolutionary War and served as Secretary of State under George Washington. Inhabited by the same family for over three and a half centuries, the Pickering House is known as America’s oldest “home.” Even today in it’s iteration as a historic house museum, Pickering feels like home, and Executive Director Linda Jenkins and her husband Tim always welcome you as if you were a member of the family. At this stop, the group enjoyed clam chowder from Red’s Sandwich Shop, bread from A&J King (the world’s best bakery, not that I’m biased or anything...), and three different kinds of mead, a historic fermented beverage that has recently made a comeback. After relaxing in the beautiful, big backyard, it was time to move on to the Witch House.
On the way over to Essex Street, we stopped to appreciate Salem’s grand boulevard (to be read in a French accent), historic Chestnut Street, the first planned street in America. Then, just past the Ropes Mansion and the First Church, we approached the Witch House, also named the Corwin House after it’s first and by far it’s most (in)famous resident, Salem Witch Trials Judge Jonathan Corwin. Built c.1675, in addition to being the home of a judge, the Corwin House was the setting of some of the pretrial examinations of suspected witches in 1692. It is the only structure in Salem with direct ties to the trials. The house museum’s dynamic director Elizabeth Peterson met us outside, where we were also introduced to historic interpreter Kristin Harris, who took us in and gave us an engaging and informative tour. Not to play favorites or anything, but I’m totally about to play favorites because food-wise, this was my favorite stop. That’s because what was on the menu here was the sweet, 17th century ambrosia that is syllabub. Yes, it sounds a lot like “syllabus,” and no, I’m not sure why, but it’s positively delicious. Syllabub is a light, fluffy, refreshing dessert made up solely of ingredients you might give up for Lent (cream, sugar, and white wine), all whipped into airy perfection. Elizabeth made it herself, garnished it with a bit of mint, and served it with colonial cookies called Shrewsbury cakes. It was divine.
And so, my foray into historical food did not disappoint. “A Taste of Seventeenth-Century Salem” was a delightful and delicious evening of old stories and old recipes. What felt new and particularly exciting was the level of proactive collaboration between one of Salem’s most beloved tours, three of its historic sites, and several of its outstanding food and beverage establishments. It’s got me thinking that in such a rich city with so many great things to offer, and so many talented and dedicated people to offer them, the possibilities for these types of enjoyable and enlightening experiences are truly endless.
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