What do I know?

I feel a need to write, but I have had a difficult time getting started.  I think I want the first time out to be a polished essay, but don’t feel up to that quality. so I’ve stalled…and stalled.  Something somewhere made me think that that was the wrong approach and I’m just going to get started…just write…starting with what I think I know.  What do I know? I know a bit about history, some about teaching, and I’m beginning to know some family history that I didn’t know before.  So here goes…




Free College? My thoughts

The question of the cost of college had been in the news the past few years and I have been giving it a great deal of thought. So here we go.

I think we are at a point where public education (free) needs to be extended to the first two years of college.  Over the last 200 years or so, what seems to be required in terms of an education has expanded, both in scope and in population.  In colonial days, few people had any kind of formal education and it certainly wasn’t free, but as we moved into the 19th century, educational reform brought free/publicly funded to New England first and later to the rest of the country.  At that point it was only primary (elementary) school.  There was no demand for secondary education for all.  Primary was enough for the type of jobs many people were doing.  Those who looked to higher education accepted the idea that they would pay for it themselves.  Very few went on to college.

By the end of the 19th century, early 20th, it was still common that children only finished as far as 8th grade.  My grandmother, born in 1891, completed her studies to that level.  She was a bright, well read woman who went on to employment mostly as a secretary throughout her life.  She did crossword puzzles and quoted Shakespeare. She was a lifelong learner based on a foundation of an 8th grade education.

By the time my father was in school, completion of HS was more common, though still not a requirement for many jobs.  My father graduated at 15 from Boys’ High of Atlanta in 1927, but many boys would have already been in the workforce by that point, trained by employers and through apprenticeship programs.  College was still primarily for an elite few.

After WWII, completion of HS became a standard.  There was no question that it would be publicly funded.  It became accepted that that level of education was required for the new jobs of  new era.  After the launch of Sputnik, the push for students to complete HS became part of a national goal, a way to show the superiority of the West.  Of course our society would fund such advancement!

When I graduated from HS in the 1970s, students could still drop out at age 16.  they may have had more difficulty with employment that their peers who completed a diploma, but there was still room for trades, apprentices, and other non-college tracks.

Tracks.  That was a loaded word in the education field.  Tracking.  Putting students into programs theoretically based on ability and inclination- some headed for college, others for vocational training.  In practice, it was often used for segregation.  White kids were college track, African Americans were not.  As a result of that and other objections, tracking became a negative idea by the late 80s and 1990s.  All students were to be prepared as if they were going to college, training in the the trades was denigrated.  Everybody was expected to aspire to college.

But you know what? Not everybody is suited for college.  Not everybody aspires to the kinds of jobs that required a college degree.  Not everybody has the money for college.  But the push became college prep for all during HS.  Vocational programs in HSs disappeared.  Now we have a a whole cadre of students who have a college prep education, but no job skills.  So where do they go?

Some went to college and failed.  Some tired to find jobs, but with no skills, failed.  A new market emerged- vocational training marketed as “college.”  There were other factors that drove up the cost of colleges, but these for profit colleges really exploited this idea that everyone needed to get a college degree.  But they seemed to fill a need. because vocational education or any kind of true job training is very limited at the HS level.  The better solution for many students is two years at a community college.  Community colleges have stepped up to fill the gap.  Many offer the kind of programs that used to lead to the trades in HS, but at a fraction of the cost of the for profit “colleges.”  As technology has become an increasing part of our lives and jobs, the education for those jobs needs to adapt.  HSs have added technology training, but not specific to individual jobs.  The community colleges are filling that role as well.  We are now in the 21st century, at a point where those two years of community college need to become part of the accepted educational path and publicly funded just as HS became in the 20th.

Walking in Richmond 1

Earlier  this month I started walking in different areas of Richmond.            One morning I had my son’s car at Saabtech in Shockoe bottom so I went walking to pass the time.        I found several buildings on Franklin Street that were interesting and still intend to find out more about them.  However this was the most intriguing spot I found on this walk.


This is the first burial ground for Jews in Virginia.  It looks nearly empty- no markers, just grass except for something stone in the back right corner.  It is surrounded on 3 sides by a new apartment building which seems really odd.  I’m not sure I’d want one of the apartments overlooking the burial ground.  Would you?

I needed to find out more and this article gives a good summary of the history of this burial ground.  It explains that most of the burials were moved to the new cemetery that opened in 1816, but the one remaining burial is that stone in the back that is the top of the Cohen Tomb.



Go find something new to see in Richmond!

Open Hearth Cooking- Practicing what I learned

I knew that while I had involved students in my two trips to Louisa County for Open Hearth Cooking classes, I wanted more students to get the experience.  When I had been putting together the Material Culture Resource Collection for use in the classroom, I bought some gear for doing so- Dutch ovens, trivets, tripod.  I even bought a firebowl and patio tiles so I wouldn’t damage whatever location I ended up using.

I had heard that there was a nearby county park related to our Parham Road Campus, so I went looking.  I found that the park is not only attached to the campus, but that you can only get to it through our campus.  It has a baseball field, football field, and basketball courts, but the important thing for me was one lone metal-box-on-a-stick grill.  That meant that fire was permitted there!  I had dreaded the thought of hoops and hoops and hoops I would likely have to go through to have fire on campus, but this is a county park that allowed fire!  

I checked the signs, I read the rules, I looked up the website.  I could do this!

I contacted Sophia and asked her if she wanted to be my partner-in-crime.  She agreed and we began to plan what we would try to cook! I decided that using some cheap refrigerator biscuits could be a way to gauge the heat of our fire/coals.  Sophia was excited about doing corn pudding, so I had her look up a recipe.  We did an apple pie too- all store bought ingredients because we were practicing the fire part more than the recipe part!

 I had bought the firebowl and patio tiles, but because of various circumstances, they would be difficult to get to and transport.  So I bought a great big ceramic pot for my coals and some smaller tiles instead.  I also bought the natural hardwood charcoal Danny told me about as a shortcut. 

We picked a day and got all the equipment together- I wanted to be careful enough that there would be no question of safety.  I brought a fire extinguisher too!  We started the fire in the ceramic pot and thought the coals were ready.  We put the first batch of biscuits in the small cake pan and popped it into the Dutch oven on top of the trivet. And we waited…not so patiently.  We thought they had been in long enough but when we checked them, they were starting to dry, but not really cook or brown.  We realized our coals were not nearly hot enough and we had been impatient.  

We waited and chatted and waited some more.  It was hot out.  We heard a noise and looked around to see Sophia’s cell phone fly off of the picnic table we were using!  What the heck? It turns out that the heat had caused the top of the refrigerator biscuit tube and it sent the phone flying!

So then we tried a second batch of biscuits.  These went much better!  In about the same amount of time you would have them in your oven at home, they came out puffed up and browned!  Yum!  While those were cooking, we put together the corn pudding.  It made so much we had to put it in two of the cake pans.  I had only brought pot holders from home and getting down in the oven to pull out the biscuits was touch and go.  I only burned myself once, but it was enough to teach me that I needed something more- like a mitt and not just a pot holder!

I used a modern lid lifter rather than the 19th century one we had used in class.  I like it a great deal better because it feels so much more stable than the period one.  With the modern one, I feel confident that I’m not going to drop it or have it tilt and dump ashes into the food. That was part of what I needed to learn to feel ready to show this to students on my own.

Back to Louisa for more open hearth cooking

I had so much fun learning to cook at Louisa County’s Open Hearth Cooking class in 2012, I made sure to look for it in 2013!  My students gained a great deal from it as well.  Even students who didn’t go ended up with some great insights after the young ladies who went reported back to the class.  My favorite thought that came out of the class discussion was that people spent so much more time interacting with family because of the enormous amount of time spent cooking in tiny spaces.

So I began to organize another trip.  This time, the class in March fit better in my schedule. Sophia wanted to go- and her sister, Bridgette, who had been in my class previously.  Adam, also in US II that semester, who is a baker went as well.  Our fourth was Browning from my Civil War class.

Because it was spring, the menu was somewhat different from my previous experience.  We were going to do the pork loin again, but along with it we were going to make Martha Washington’s recipe for chicken fricassee.  We also did apple pie and biscuits again, but the veggies changed.  We boiled potatoes, maybe with onion?  We had a salad of early spring greens. The salad dressing was from the 19th century cookbook of the woman who lived just across the field from the house where we were cooking.

I had experience cooking in general and had helped with the cooking on the previous occasion, so this time my goal was to work and observe more of the fire management.  Elaine also showed us how to use flint and steel to create sparks.  We all took turns and it is harder than you might think!  I found it took kind of a flick of the wrist rather than an even stroke.  We used the sparks from the flint and steel to  light something called charcloth.  Charcloth is small bit of cotton that have been carbonized by putting them in a tin canister with a hole in it and throwing it in a fire.  The cloth doesn’t burn up, but it goes black and flaky.  The sparks catch on the charcloth and you slowly coax it to flame by breathing on it. Then it could be used to start the fire.

Unlike my first experience, the weather was warm and sunny.  That first occasion, we  had pulled up chairs and squished a bit, but ate together in the warm kitchen on that cold day.  This time, however, we pulled the benches out back and ate on our laps in the sunshine.  While it was lovely, I did miss the feeling of camaraderie that we had around the table.  

With this second class, I began to feel more confident that I could do some of this kind of cooking on my own and I began to plan how I might share that with my students and others.

Stay tuned!

Beginning to learn open hearth cooking

In 2012, I somehow found that Louisa County was offering a class in Open Hearth Cooking.  It was in the Parks and Rec brochure, but it was run by the Louisa County Historical Society.  In my excitement, I told my students about it and several were interested in it!  Three of the young women in my morning class signed up.  One was then unable to go, but Brittany, Tiara and I headed off to Louisa one Saturday in February.

Elaine met us at Brackett’s Farm, dressed in early 19th century style clothing.  We were to cook in a small building some yards from the ‘big’ house.  This kitchen building was was small, maybe 20′ x 15′.  The enormous fireplace was on the short end of the structure.  The opposite end had doors on the long sides that would provide ventilation in warm weather. She had brought cast iron of all sorts, bowls, utensils, and ingredients for us to cook.  The class was limited to ten, but without Lane, we only had 9.  Elaine also had experienced helpers, another cooking instructor and a fellow who was there to help get the fires going.

Yes, fireS.  The fireplace was as wide as two ‘regular’ fireplaces and had two set of andirons for two fires to produce the coals we would use to cook.  It was nearly as tall as I am.  The heavy wooden mantel was at the level of my head. Elaine got us started on preparing the food while the fires were getting to the point that they would produce the coals we needed.  One of the first things we prepared was a pork loin.  We trussed it up in twine to hang it in the corner of the fireplace.  I knew that meat was hung over fires to roast, but what I didn’t know was that part of the process is the radiant heat from the bricks.  For that reason, the pork was hung not over the fire, but in the corner.

Another item that we prepared early was the apple pie.  We peeled and sliced apples and made the pie crust.  Brittany and Tiara used the extra dough to embellish the top of the pie with leaf shapes.  The others were impressed and it was beautiful.  We also churned butter and used the buttermilk in the biscuit recipe.  It was quite cold that day, but stepping outside into the fresh air or sitting in the doorway churning the butter was a a relief after the heat of the kitchen. Both the pie and the biscuits were to be baked in a Dutch oven.  Dutch ovens sometimes seem like they are only used for soups or stews, but they are really made to be used as ovens.  They are large cast iron pots with a heavy lid. Early lids were just regular sloped lids, but sometime in early American history, they started to have a lip around the edge to help hold the coals in place.  The story is that Jefferson created that innovation, but I need to find corroboration.  To allow air circulation in the oven as you have in a modern oven, we place a trivet in the bottom to raise the pie pan up.  Elaine showed us that if you don’t have a trivet, you can achieve the same thing with three or four rocks of approximately the same size.  We placed the Dutch oven on some coals and added coals on top of the lid too.

We also sliced up cabbage and radishes to be boiled.  Not together.  They were boiled in large metal pots (tin? steel?) that were hung over the fire.  The height of the pot over the fire can be adjusted with the ‘S’ hooks.  More hooks, closer to the fire. Fewer hooks, less hear further from the fire.  We used some of the butter we churned on the radishes, but we had a recipe to make creamed cabbage.  I melted butter in a cast iron skillet and added flour to make a paste, then we added the cream.  After it had thickened a bit, we added the drained cabbage and coated it in the sauce.

Then we sat down together to eat.  Pork, biscuits, creamed cabbage, buttered radishes, and apple pie.

As we finished and began our drive home, it began to snow.

Gathering my thoughts

I am a teacher and historian.  I’m very interested in Material Culture- those things that show us how people lived in different times or places.  I have been broadening my studies in both clothing and cooking in the last year or so and plan to use this blog as a place to think through what I’ve learned, process what I am learning, and share what succeeded and failed in my experiments.  I also intend to write some of my thoughts on my recent reading as well.  All in all, I plan to use this as a way to gather my thoughts….

I’ll likely start with some catching up on what I have been up to!

hhmmm…I might do some family history and stories too….