It’s that time of year again in Wisconsin. My family and I, plus usually Bob (the master tinsmith I apprentice under) and his wife Marilyn, and his extended family, and whatever friends who want to join us…we get geared up for the re-enactment season!
I’ve come to discover rendezvous and re-enactments are not a typical experience of anyone who lives on the west coast in particular, and cities in general. Something I’ve grown up with since early childhood is something spectacularly unique for friends who have never attended one. Many people are familiar with Civil War reenactments, and the East Coast has a rich history of living history experiences. But the middle of the country specializes in the fur trade era, which ran from the late 1700s to about 1840, and is a unique and brief part of our country’s history.
This is the stories of the mountain men, the voyagers, and the fur trappers. This is where one gets the image of the men covered in hides and furs, living with the local Natives, and the families who carved a life out of soddies and in the deep woods and mountains. It was us against nature, and it was a rough and exhilarating way to live.
We don’t get quite so wild when we do re-enactments, particularly because we have three young children. We do, however, run one of the local rendezvous with another family, rendering us the “booshways” or camp leaders in charge. It’s a ton of work on the front end for us, but totally worth it. The camp location was in use by the traders and local Natives for a rendezvous point since the 1600s, so it’s a historically significant site as well.
When we camp, Bob and I set up a tinsmithing and coppersmith booth and show how things are made, allowing school children and public alike to wield tools made in 1760 and to create things out of pieces of tin. We also cook over the fire – absolutely everything needs to be made historically accurate, which means everything from coffee to eggs to cookies is done the old way.
Have you ever made coffee over a fire? Boil the water and then throw in the coffee and wait? There wasn’t the coffee packs or instant coffee in 1829. You had to roast the coffee in the little tin roasting oven, grind in the mill, and then finally put it to boil. And how do you handle those pesky floating coffee grounds? Why, throw in some egg shells. It’ll make those grounds sink right to the bottom!
(It’s also a great way to tell if an old kettle for coffee or tea! Tea would have the spout low to the base, whereas coffee pots had the spout high on the body so you wouldn’t pour out the grounds!)
We also make cookies from an 1801 recipe, which asks for things I had to google. It also doesn’t have an amount for flour. Back in the day, you never knew what consistency the miller would grind your wheat, so you just would add handfuls until it was the right consistency. And how would you bake cookies over a fire? You didn’t. You needed a biscuit oven made from tin, which would site right next to the fire and slowly bake the cookies. Talk about taking a long time and watching for burning! It takes all day to make a batch!
And what about everything else? Well, you’d have some cast iron, which you’d use for everything from eggs to steak to stew to apple pie. And you’d have tin for everything else. And if you were lucky, a copper kettle or two to hang over the fire itself from some poles, which was good to make pretty much anything but that apple pie.
Cooking over a fire is one thing for sure: always a challenge, and always a good time!