Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Historic Old Salem offers model for healthy, seasonal eating in new year

Cakes baked in the large hearth at
the Vierling Home & Apothecary.
The new year often inspires resolutions of healthier eating and reducing food waste. For those located near the Triad, an appealing model for both can be found from a very old source: Old Salem Museums & Gardens in Winston-Salem.

The Moravian settlement, established in 1766 by Protestant missionaries from what is now the Czech Republic, thrives as a restored historical village. It includes 22 structures ranging from a boy’s school and housing for single men and women to an African church, gun shop, various merchants and professional offices, as well as the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. Tyler Cox, Old Salem’s manager of community relations, says it has more structures on original architectural footprints than Williamsburg.

Winter garden at the Miksch House.
Not surprisingly, growing, cooking and preserving food was a key component of community life. Even in winter, the heirloom garden at the Miksch House remains a hub of activity. During a recent visit, cold frames were protecting tender vegetation, orchards were trimmed and beds were being groomed for spring plantings.

Seasonal hearth cooking and preserving techniques – as well as coffee roasting and butter churning – are demonstrated in homesteads throughout the village. With benefit of immaculate records kept by original occupants, costumed interpreters present the past in context with modern realities. These unscripted, blissfully thee-and-thou-less insights encourage visitors to engage in sensibly informative conversations.

This welcoming stance is in sync with the Moravian’s equitable perspective on hospitality. The lessons are especially appealing when visiting the kitchens and gardens of former private homes and shops, which maintain the foodways of Old  Salem’s industrious forebears. Examples of creative and, importantly, healthful seasonal cooking abound.

Interpreter Coreen Smith demonstrates Moravian foodways
in the kitchen of the Miksch House.
If you think kale salad is a new invention, be sure to swing by the Miksch House at dusk, when the fireplace embers are fading. You're likely to find a bowl of greens just-cut from the winter garden awaiting a simple dressing from home-cured vinegars. Most bottles were infused with herbs and chilies from the garden; one fancy option was a mushroom “ketchup.”

“You eat what you’ve got, and right now, we’ve got lots of kale,” says interpreter Coreen Smith while gazing into a field dotted with leeks, turnips and Swiss chard. Crocks resting atop a cabinet soon would be filled with cabbage to make sauerkraut. “If we’re lucky, the garden will continue to feed us for a few more weeks.”

Typical kitchen tools include red clay
cookware and a sturdy whisk made
of bound birch twigs.
A complete tour of Old Salem’s 22 sites can be done in about four hours, but a leisurely visit provides a glimpse of the typical dawn-to-dusk lifestyle of namesake dwellers. A fire is stoked early in the kitchen of the Vierling Home & Apothecary, a focus of Old Salem’s ongoing fundraising and restoration efforts through the On Common Ground campaign. The blaze is banked not just to tame the morning chill but also to prepare the day’s meals.

Red clay cookware and cast iron Dutch ovens are nestled on the hearth to boil and bake whatever is available from the garden or stored in the larder. Warm apple dumplings and a dense pound cake, with a pound of each ingredient whisked into batter with a bundle of birch twigs, scented the air.

Very little went to waste. Stale bread was grated to thicken soup or, in the hands of a deft cooks, repurposed to make an elegant torte with almond flour, bread crumbs and orange peel. This particular dessert was documented on an original Winkler Bakery receipt – a term better known today as a recipe.

Christian Winkler was the second operator of the town bakery and become one of the community’s most influential citizens. Recruited by the church, which selected a suitable bride as his helpmate, he arrived in 1807.  Known for his fairness and honesty, he fed countless families with breads that sold for pennies a loaf.

Interpreter Jeffrey Sherrill bakes from original
Winkler receipts, including breads,
sugar cakes and wafer cookies.
Winkler likewise depended on seasonal ingredients and saved sugar to make special occasion treats, such as the Moravian sugar cakes that remain popular today. For daily use, professional and home bakers alike used what they had on hand: sugar beets and honey, molasses and sorghum.  

Interpreter Jeffrey Sherrill, who bakes dozens of original-recipe breads and cakes daily, says the wood-fueled ovens at Winkler’s are greatly affected by cold winter winds, which cause uneven heat distribution. This makes it especially tricky to bake the wafer-thin cookies associated with the Moravian community and sold in the bakery.

Old Salem is about a two-hour drive from Raleigh, which makes it an appealing day trip. It is open to visitors from 9:30am to 4:30 pm Tuesday through Saturday and 1-4:30pm Sundays. Not all sites require a ticket for admission, and some buildings in the village are private residences. For details, visit or call 336-721-7300 (toll free, 888-653-7253).

Note: My tour of Old Salem Museums & Gardens was arranged by Visit Winston-Salem. Additional posts about things to do in Winston-Salem will follow. For information about other area events and activities, call Visit Winston-Salem at 336-728-4200 (toll free, 866-728-4200).