Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Eating Historically at the Eagle Tavern

We all know what an amazing collection of historical artifacts Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan has, including dozens upon dozens of 18th and 19th century homes and buildings.
And we all know that the presenters there do a remarkable job in bringing the past to life for the visitors, showing chores and activities of farm life and city life and everything in between.
And we also enjoy watching the ladies cook food the "old-fashioned" way, on the wood and coal burning stoves or over open hearths. Oh! The odors that emanate from the kitchens of Daggett, Firestone, Susquehanna, and Edison! How I wish we could enjoy the old-style food of the season that they themselves get to eat! But, unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to try any of what is cooked in those historic homes. 
Wouldn’t it be great, however, to actually be able to taste this period food?
Well, we, the visitors, actually can!
And in period surroundings!
Why, the Eagle Tavern, of course!
A photograph of the Eagle Tavern in its original location in Clinton, Michigan taken circa late 1800s. Note the lack of a dining room in back. That was added upon restoration inside Greenfield Village. Also note the horse and buggy to the right.
But first, a little history:
Early in the 19th century, a stage line was operated between Detroit and Tecumseh on what was originally an Indian trail. With the coming of the early settlers from the east, however, it became the settler's route as well. As traveling increased and roads were made possible for stagecoach travel, taverns were built along this route. Originally known as Parks Tavern when built in Clinton, Michigan, around 1831, this building was renamed the Eagle Tavern in 1849 and the name remained until the Civil War. It was one of the first of the taverns built on this road, which eventually extended to Niles, Michigan in 1832, and then, by 1833, the road made it to Chicago, when it became the Chicago Turnpike, and finally Chicago Road/US 12.
If Henry Ford had restored the Eagle Tavern to its original design without adding the large back dining area, this is what it would look like. On the other side, there would have been a larger back area for the original kitchen as well as a dining area (see the next two photos below).
This Inn offered food and drink for the weary travelers back during this time of stagecoach travel, and since country taverns were operated by households, tavern cooking was home cooking, with the predominant method being over an open fire, although cookstoves were available by the late 1830's. A bake oven would have undoubtedly been used at the tavern as well. Mr. Calvin C. Wood and his wife, Harriet, the owners of the tavern in 1850 (the year Greenfield Village has depicted it to be) most certainly ran the place with help from local labor. Mrs. Wood would have supervised the housekeeping and probably presided over the common table as the tavern's hostess. Young men from neighboring farms or young unmarried women from the general area would have supplied the cooking and keeping. With food coming from the Wood family farm (and other local farms, for the tavern owner, for what he did not grow himself, would know his local farmers and who made products like breads and cheeses, who grew herbs, and might have the different fruits needed), the meals served would have been very substantial, and the patrons on the receiving end were served in abundance.
I was told this is a photograph of the original Eagle Tavern kitchen/dining area. Upon studying pictures of how the tavern looked before Henry Ford added on the large dining area, I can see that this was how the tavern was originally set up back in the 19th century. I've seen pictures of other taverns and the similarities are striking. This area is still located on the back right side of the tavern, directly behind the ladies parlor (you's the room where the bathrooms are now located). Yep - that's the "common table" you see, where the travelers sat and dined.
There is a wonderfully detailed description of how a mealtime worked at a local (Detroit) tavern in 1838. This could very well describe, in a similar vein, mealtime at the Eagle, or any other local tavern of the time:
"When the dinner bell was rung, the was a general rush to the room, as if they had not tasted food for several days. Not being so ravenous as it seemed to me they all must be, I waited until they had all entered, and in consequence could not find a place at the table. However, I had only to wait about six minutes, when one, having finished his meal, walked off, on which I occupied his place. But, by this time almost everything seemed cleared off, so that I with difficulty obtained a fragment of bread and a cup of coffee. I soon found out the reason of the rush to dinner and, benefiting by my experience, pursued the same course as the rest."
Here is the original tavern kitchen/dining area today. If you could go back in time a hundred and sixty five years you would have seen the common table here. However, I do see a few discrepancies when compared to the 'original' photo above; either Henry Ford made some pretty big changes (compare the ceilings, fireplaces, and the distance from the left wall to the fireplace) or they are from two different taverns. Either way, these two rooms are very similar and allows one to see the tavern kitchen and dining area from days of old.

Most food would have been stored in a ground level storage room or in a cellar. Taverns also might have a separate springhouse, mainly for keeping dairy products fresh, and also an ice house. 
Compiled from traveler's accounts, merchant's account books, local newspaper advertisements, and historical reminisces, it has been learned that the most common meat served in taverns in the southern part of Michigan was pork, followed by chicken, beef, local game such as venison, rabbit, and quail, and finally, seafood. Vegetables, of course were mostly of whatever was in season, though potatoes were the most common vegetable served, followed by cabbage, corn, peas, and onions.
Fruits were also of the season, such as peaches, pears, and apples. Bread was a mainstay.
Here is my Fricasseed Chicken with Biscuits - - oooo...and Brussels Sprouts, too!
Visiting Greenfield Village is a historical feast for the human senses of sight, sound, smell, & touch, and with the Eagle Tavern serving up fare of our ancestor's time, the sense of taste can be included.
Taken from said accounts from travelers and owners as well as period cookbooks, the Eagle Tavern serves up a real "taste of history" in the truest sense. In all honesty, the whole concept of serving historical food is worthy of praise and patronage, for at a time when Americans are looking to their roots, when cuisine from the past is being rediscovered, and when pure unadulterated non-gmo food is making a comeback, the Eagle Tavern could not be more "up to date."
Years ago when I would dine here (in the dining room addition Mr. Ford had added on upon his 1929 restoration), I just kind of thought of it as a cool place to eat when I was hungry. It took me a while to fully comprehend this historical food thing. But once it actually hit me, it hit me hard, and I began to understand and appreciate that what was being served on our plates was every bit as important as the presentations I heard inside the historic homes.
The dining room addition of Mr. Ford's: Daytime or during one of their rare evening suppers, the Eagle Tavern is always lit by real - not electric - candles, as well as the fireplace. No artificial light allowed!

And upon realizing that what I was eating was very similar to what our ancestors would have eaten seasonally in 1850, my dining experience at the Eagle Tavern was up'd quite a bit!
For instance, during mid-to-late springtime, when Greenfield Village re-opens for the season, the menu might consist of 
Corned Beef and Cabbage
Pan-Fried Cornmeal-Crusted Trout with Fish Sauce
Savory Noodles with Spinach Garlic
Pork, Parsnip and Carrot Stew 
Chicken in a Pot with Spring Vegetables & Broth
With side orders of:
Dressed Greens and Asparagus
Spring Onion Pie
A Fry of Oysters
And desserts consisting of:
Almond Cake 
Rice Pudding
Vinegar Pie with Whipped Cream

during the early summer one would find the following on their menu:
Roasted Herb Chicken with Rice
Savory Noodles with Summer Squash and Herbs
Venison Croquette
Pan-Fried Trout with Lemon Butter
Ham-Steak with Walnut Catsup
And for side orders:
Dressed Tomatoes and Greens
Potato and Sausage Pie
Fried Eggplant with Stewed Tomatoes
And for dessert:
Strawberry Shortcake
Blueberry Fool
Peach Crisp
During the autumn time of year, their menu includes such delectable delights as:
Whitefish Served on a Cast Iron Skillet
Venison, Turnip, and Carrot Pie,
Fricasseed Chicken with Biscuits
Smoked Trout with Pickled Vegetables
Smoked Pork with Sauerkraut
Savory Noodles with Buttermilk Spinach and Herbs
And for sides one can order:
Bubble & Squeak
Onion Pie
Smoked Trout with Pickled Vegetables
And how about dessert?
Pumpkin with Whipped Cream
Cider Bread Pudding with Nutmeg Custard Sauce
Apple and Cranberry Pandowdy

 As you can plainly see, this is not your typical, normal everyday 21st century restaurant fare.

And, just so you know, they have quite the meal to serve customers during the Holiday Nights Christmas Feast. Here's what they served Christmas 2015, for instance: apple sauce, cranberry relish, butternut squash soup, pork & apple pie, , roasted chicken with cherry sauce, roasted rib of beef with brown sauce, brussels sprouts, buttered carrots, herb roasted red potatoes, and a French charlotte with vanilla sauce for dessert.
Oh, and hot cider to drink.
All very traditional and accurate for a mid-19th century Christmas meal.

And, best of all, the food is produced locally, just as it would have been in the 19th century. It really is amazing to what extent this venue goes to localize its historical food preparation; nearly everything made here is purchased locally, most within 150 miles of the museum (mainly from Michigan, though occasionally they do extend into northern Ohio). This includes the meat from the livestock, vegetables, ice cream, which comes from Melting Moments in Lansing, Guernsey milk from Northville, and even their bottled water is from Absopure, which is based in Plymouth. They're always looking at their product to make sure, if at all possible, it is locally made or grown. It's about staying true to the historical accuracy that Greenfield Village strives for. Simply put, in the mid-1800s, food and drinks would have been made or grown locally, utilizing produce and livestock grown and raised on nearby farms that would change with the seasons. It's a matter of authenticity.
And by the way, their drinks – hard and soft – are also historically accurate. 
From Dining in Detroit: (They) carry a selection of "Spiritous Liquors" in the Eagle Tavern and bar from Michigan's New Holland Distillery, which include whiskey, gin, two kinds of rum, and a "Michigan grain spirit" (called such because "vodka" would have been unknown at this time, except maybe as moonshine). New Holland's spirits were also chosen because the labels have a look more suited to the 1850 era (versus something like the cheeky 1920s-era pin-up girl on the Valentine Vodka label, superior though the product may be). Beers (called "malt beverages" on the menu) are custom-made from Detroit's Motor City Brewing Works with labels exclusive to the Henry Ford, and are bottled in such a way as to appear more era-appropriate (though bottled beer would not have existed back then). "With everything we do we consider 'how can we position this properly to have it here?' We're not going to the extreme of carrying Bud Light. We're still keeping our look and feeling [with these beers]."

The barkeep and the customer.
Tavern drinking in 1850 usually entailed "treating." Each man in turn bought a half-pint of whiskey, which was passed around the room.
Beer and wine were much less popular. 
The drinks back then would have only had two or three ingredients just to mask the flavor of the alcohol, hence the use of bitters, which do the job rather well. And just to let you know how deep this commitment to historical accuracy goes, they planted Orange Pippin apple trees over in the orchard at Firestone farm so that they can make the historic bitters recipe as it was made 160 years ago.
Did you catch that? They're growing apple trees in order to make more historically accurate bitters. Tell me that's not history coming to life!
Understand, however, for a restaurant to be 100% accurate in our modern times is nearly impossible, for there would be a whole lot of things unavailable to visitors. That's just the way it is - they do need to make money.

Now, as you probably can see, the type of fare as what's listed above can be made almost anywhere, as long as one has the ingredients.
And it would taste wonderful, I'm sure.
But period-oriented food tastes that much better when one is immersed in period-oriented surroundings: the Eagle Tavern has no artificial electric lighting - just candles, the fireplace, and what daylight the windows allow in so lighting is of a natural nature. They use wooden tables and chairs, and have communal seating (you may not know who the couple sitting next to you are when you first arrive at your table, but you will probably become friends by the time the bill arrives!), and, of course, servers and hosts in period clothing.
Again, it’s in this way they have the ability to give their patrons the memorable sensory perceptions of the past where taste as well as sight, sound, smell, and touch can be had and explored. 
None of this was haphazardly thrown together, by the way; there’s a reason for such a menu and the atmosphere: it's about historical accuracy.
Eating at the Eagle Tavern reminds me of being in a small community in which everyone knows everyone (and I do know most of the servers pretty well there!).
Here we are, a few of the locals from the 1860s community of Clinton, Michigan enjoying a fine meal at the Eagle Tavern. No, this is not a reenactment - we are living historians who like to dress up in period clothing "just because," and do so frequently. By wearing our clothing of the 1860s we kind of help with the period atmosphere, too. Don't try to understand - it's just what we do.

Now, I've said this before but it bares repeating:
we have a gem here in metro-Detroit and it amazes and astonishes me at how many people who live in this area have never been to Greenfield Village. It certainly can't be the price, for it costs nearly as much to go to the movies for only two hours. Compare that to an all-day history excursion and, again, there is no comparison. It's a great bang for your buck.


Material for this posting I found in my research at the Benson Ford Research Center, the servers and hosts of the Eagle Tavern, the book Travelers & Taverns, and my own blog posts from a few years back HERE and HERE.
The historic food presentation information came from Nicole Rupersburg and her Dining in Detroit blog dedicated to...well...the fine food one can find in the Detroit area. 


Shelley said...

Thank you for sharing this history! Wonderful post!

Becky said...

Thank you so much for the awesome reviews. We, too, are looking forward to the Village opening next week! My girls and I are going to try Eagle Tavern for the first time this spring, and I appreciate your listing of sample seasonal menus.

Bob Rupe said...

When I ate there last on the 5th of July, I told the server I had eaten there more than a thousand times. I could see he was incredulous of my claim, so I explained that I had attended grade school at the Edison Institute and ate lunch there every school day for 6 years.