Dinner Time Stories: An Extraordinary Evening with Le Petit Chef

An evening of Dinner Time Stories with La Petit Chef

It’s not every day that you receive an invitation to dine with the world’s smallest chef. But that is exactly what happened on Sunday night. This one-of-a-kind dinner took place at The Standard, a private cigar bar and restaurant located in a historic townhouse in downtown Nashville.

A foreigner to the country, the world’s smallest chef lives in France, but he’s just recently embarked on a world-wide tour of sorts that will take him to Stockholm, Cairo, the United Arab Emirates and all around the United States in 2018. Lucky for us, his first stop in America was right here in Nashville at one of the prettiest restaurants in town.

The Standard is an elegant splash of old-world glamour that naturally evokes daydreams of long-ago decades and previous merrymaking.  Although it’s only recently become a restaurant and cigar bar (in the early 2000’s) it is definitely not hard to imagine that this building has lived a flamboyant and glamorous lifestyle throughout its existence.

Built in 1843, it is a gorgeous example of antebellum Italianate architecture, the last of its kind on this city block that once held dozens of similar buildings all in a row.  With its exposed brick walls, moody lighting, leather furniture, big fireplaces and cozy nooks your imagination doesn’t have to run far to conjure up swanky scotch parties and charming tuxedo-types romancing dates and drinks throughout the past 175 years.

Scenes from the Standard

Originally a family home, then a bed and breakfast in the 1980’s, and now most recently a night-time restaurant and a private club, it is safe to say that this building has seen its fair share of special occasion dinners. This past Sunday evening was no exception.

Tucked into a private dining room with two long tables, white cloths and curious leather bound books placed at each setting,  dinner guests were invited to indulge in a bit of whimsy for a two hour stretch on a cold January night.

Photo courtesy of dinnertimestoriesusa.com

Our mysterious host, the little chef, was nowhere to be found at this point, but as the lights dimmed and the maitre d’ welcomed us, he magically appeared…

Bonjour! Meet the little chef with the BIG personality!

from inside the books placed before us!  As it turns out, the world’s smallest chef is no bigger than your pinkie finger. Mini in size, but mighty in personality, we quickly learned that Le Petit Chef is a BIG fan of a certain famous explorer…

Marco Polo (1254-1324), the famous Venetian explorer who traveled across Europe and Asia and published his experiences in a book called The Description of the World.

Marco Polo. By nature, the two have very much in common – they are both intrepid travelers, free spirits, and excellent storytellers. This very special dinner, hosted and prepared by the little guy himself, turned out to be a culmination of bold travel experiences inspired by his idol, Marco and his famous 14th-century explorations that changed the world.

Told through the use of 3D projection mapping, Le Petit Chef cooks and adventures right before your eyes pulling you into his engaging world of storytelling and food presentation in the most fanciful of ways. Over six courses, he takes dinner guests to a myriad of exotic lands, near and far, with stops in places like India, Asia, the Himalayas (and more!) all the while preparing signature dishes from each culture.  His adventures were so big in scale, he had to literally jump out of the book and walk around on the table in order to showcase the whole journey…

To give you a little perspective, that’s my wine glass in the top left corner and Le Petit Chef in the right-hand corner walking around on the tablecloth.

I realize this is a difficult situation to wrap your head around – a little guy walking and talking around your plate  while you are also eating – so we’ll share this video so that you get a better idea of how it all works…

Each course was presented in its own dynamic and interesting way. The first course for example, (Ratatouille  Terrine with Tomato Jam accompanied by a Roasted Green Slip Mussel with Garlic and Lemon) arrived in a mini suitcase just as the little chef was sailing across the ocean in search of the start of his trip.

As the story continued and the travel destinations became more exotic, the table landscape changed in a multitude of different ways…

Here we are in China!

In an instant, patterns and colors transformed into new shades and shapes…

while real food filled our bellies and visual artistry fueled a feast for our eyes. Magic met us at every turn.

Grilled Shrimp with Chili, Sriracha and Sesame, on the left and a dessert demonstration by Le Petite Chef on the right.

By the time the cloudy mountaintops of the Himalayas were presented, and real-life fog flooded our plates, in both food form and story form, we all, everyone at the two long tables, had completely fallen in love with the little chef.  When the last crumbs of dessert were whisked away and the little chef bid us good night, we knew we had experienced an incredible event. We had spent a glorious time with a new friend who not only fed ourselves but also fed our souls.

It’s the goal of the little chef to see as much of America as possible, which is good news for you. He might be heading your way next! Keep up with his city stops here… and if he’s in your neck of the woods, go and find him. Dine with him. Fall in love with him. And enjoy the enchantment he brings. It will be an unforgettable night full of magical storytelling.  And if there is anything more than we need in this crazy world right now, it is more moments like this in our lives.  Passion, excitement, and entertainment meet at the table of Le Petit Chef.  As Marco Polo once said, “You’ll hear it for yourselves, and it will surely fill you with wonder.”

Look for Le Petit Chef’s tour schedule here.

If you live in the Nashville area, book your Dinner Time Story night at the Standard here.

And if you haven’t already visited, all you Nashvillians, stop by the Standard for a cocktail or two. You won’t regret it!

Cheers to Le Petit Chef for a most marvelous night and to Marco Polo for continuing to inspire centuries of travelers the world around.

The Snow Day and The Simmering Stove: Ruth Reichl’s Chicken Fricassee

There is something magical that happens when your cooking and your reading and your weather all line up together. It’s 14 degrees today (for the high!) and it’s snowing big, fat flakes in every direction (for the second time this week!). With pure delight, I write this because it has been a very long time coming. Winter weather in the South is never usually this charismatic, so for an eternal snow lover like myself, these past few days have been absolutely fantastic.

I’m eighty pages into Ruth Reichl’s latest cookbook, My Kitchen Year, where it is also winter. Ruth is writing about the freezing temperatures and the snowy landscape in upstate New York and how the seductive aromas of long-simmering onions and butter and chicken and wine have the ability to both warm the stomach and the spirit.

From Ruth Reichl’s latest cookbook, My Kitchen Year, published in 2015

Today, its Ruth’s birthday, so we thought it would be fun to make one (or two) of her recipes to compliment both the winter landscape we are reading about and the winter landscape we are actually experiencing. If you are unfamiliar with Ruth Reichl,  she has been around the food scene since the 1970’s as a writer, chef, food critic, host and magazine editor in all realms of media from print to television to radio.

Ruth Reichl

I first heard of her when I was a teenager, riding up the West Side Highway with my dad and my sister. At that point, in the early 1990’s, Ruth was the food critic for the New York Times. Her restaurant reviews would air on the morning commute segment of the local classical music station favorited by my dad as he battled his way through New York City traffic. The spot, sponsored by Veuve Clicquot, contained her latest restaurant review and was, to put it politely, very honest. More often than not, she disliked a restaurant or the food or the service and she wasn’t afraid to say so. She’d sign off every review saying “I’m Ruth Reichl” and my sister and I used to mimic her voice in the car.

Growing up in New York, where most endeavors get scrutinized on a daily basis, I was used to reading about reviews and hearing criticisms on a variety of subjects when it came to the creative arts and emerging trends. But the way Ruth talked about food and service and presentation was elevated to a whole new level of description. Her words were candid but also sophisticated and humorous when it came to observation.  Each review was a brave, opinionated tale of her own experience that flew through the air seemingly without care as to whom it might affect at the restaurant of concern or what impression it might make of herself. The three us, my dad, my sister and I  thought she was pretty audacious. We used her name as our own descriptive tool when it came to trying out restaurants in the city…”Well it’s no Ruth Reichl…” and all of us made special note to remember the names of the restaurants she lauded because certainly, they didn’t come around often.

Fast forward a decade and a half later, I spotted Tender at the Bone, a memoir she had published in the late 1990’s, for sale at an outdoor book stall in Philadelphia.  I bought it,  took it home and immediately called my sister. “I’m Ruth Reichl”  she said and we both laughed over memories of driving with our dad on the West Side Highway. And then I actually read the book, which was marvelous and to my surprise, very vulnerable and humbling. There was no restaurant critic in her voice in these pages. It was all heart and humanity when it came to discussing family, food and growing up. And there were recipes – good ones, homey ones that everyone enjoyed – brownies, deviled eggs, pot roast, fruit tarts etc.  I loved it so much, I immediately read her other two books which followed – Comfort Me With Apples and Sapphires and Garlic. Those books covered her young adult years in food, job and relationship explorations and then those famous years as a restaurant critic when her job was no easy slice of pie.  These stories slashed through all my pre-conceived notions of who I thought Ruth was when I was a teenager and she was sponsored by a champagne company. And most importantly her books were my first introduction into reading food memoirs… not so much for the recipes but for the stories behind them.

For a long while, lots of things coming out of my kitchen stemmed from Ruth either in the form of recipes from her books or ones from her magazine, Gourmet, where she held down the fort as editor-in-chief.  The food she featured always contained simple elegant ingredients that looked pretty on a plate and satisfied all the senses in a most appealing way. Even though I’ve never met her, Ruth has been a reliable companion in my kitchen, which brings us back to this post featuring her birthday celebration on today’s cold winter’s day. I selected these two recipes because, like the lively lady herself, they are full of depth and require some care and attention in a fun and fulfilling way. Also, they make the kitchen smell like heaven.

Chicken Fricassee and Show-Off Salad

The vintage recipe, Show-Off Salad (aptly named because you prepare the whole thing at table in front of your fellow diners) is from Tender at the Bone and the classic yet modern day recipe Chicken Fricassee is from her latest cookbook My Kitchen Year.

Both recipes are a great representation of my memories of Ruth – they might seem a little fussy at first but at their core, they are just real, simple and basic dishes that have universal appeal. Hope you enjoy them just as much!

SHOW-OFF SALAD – Serves 4

2 cloves garlic

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup cubed stale French bread

1 egg, organic, farm-raised

1 small head of romaine lettuce

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire

1/2 teaspoon salt

pepper to taste

1/2 of a large lemon

4 anchovy fillets, cut into quarters

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese or more if desired

Make the croutons. Crush one clove of garlic and add it to two tablespoons of olive oil in a medium size pan over medium heat. Add the bread cubes and saute until the bread is crisp and golden on all sides. Drain on a paper towel and set aside.

Set a small pot of water to boil on the stove. Once the water is boiling, coddle the egg by dropping the entire egg (in its shell) into the water and boiling it for 1 minute. Remove the egg from the water and set aside.

When you coddle an egg for a salad dressing like this you are heating it  (but not cooking it) really fast just below the boiling point, so it’s important to use a trusted organic farm egg as opposed to generic grocery store eggs for salmonella reasons.  Uncooked eggs are dangerous carriers of bacteria, so make sure your eggs are from clean, natural and reputable sources. Otherwise skip the egg part altogether.

Wash and dry the lettuce and then tear into bite-sized pieces.

This next step can be done in your kitchen – or in front of guests, it doesn’t matter either way. If you prepare it in front of guests, put all the salad components on a tray and carry it out to the table to make.

Ruth Reichl’s Show-off Salad

Peel the remaining clove of a garlic, cut it in half and crush one half in the bottom of a big salad bowl. Add lettuce leaves and remaining olive oil. Toss thoroughly until each leaf is coated. Add the Worcestershire,  and then the salt and pepper to taste. Break the egg over the lettuce and toss until leaves glisten. Stick a fork into the lemon half and squeeze the juice over the salad. Toss the leaves until the dressing begins to look creamy. Then toss in the anchovies and mix again. Adjust the seasonings (salt, pepper, lemon juice) if need be before adding the cheese and croutons.

Now that the salad is ready, consider serving it on individual salad plates rather than next to the Chicken Fricassee which is saucy and is more suited for the crunchy bread as far as plate companions go. In addition to a dinner side, this salad also makes a lovely meal just on its own too.

CHICKEN FRICASSEE – Serves 4

(A small note: I varied this recipe a little bit just because of what we had on hand as far as ingredients in the Vintage Kitchen. Find our modifications in italics)

1 whole organic, free-range chicken, cut into 10 pieces or 1 package organic, free-range skinless boneless chicken cutlets 

1 medium carrot, diced

1 celery stalk, diced

1 cup white wine

1/2 pound mushrooms, quartered

salt

pepper

5 tablespoons butter or 1 tablespoon butter + 4 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, diced

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups chicken broth

fresh parsley

1 bay leaf

2 egg yolks

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 lemon

Shower the chicken with salt and pepper. If using a cut-up whole chicken: Melt two tablespoons of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil in a large casserole over medium-high heat. Place the chicken skin-side down and brown for five minutes on each side. Remove to a plate. (If using boneless skinless chicken cutlets… melt one tablespoon butter and two tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken and brown about 3 minutes on each side. Remove to a plate.)

If you choose the skinless boneless cutlet version, this is what your chicken will look like after the quick saute.

In the same pan where you cooked the chicken, add the onion, carrots, and celery and cook until vegetables are fragrant and soft- about 10 minutes – stirring occasionally.

Add two tablespoons of flour and cook, stirring continuously until all the fat has been absorbed. Add the white wine and stir until the liquid has thickened slightly. Return the chicken to the pan. Add the broth. Add a few sprigs of parsley, salt and pepper and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Partially cover and cook for about 30 minutes – 45 minutes until chicken yields when you pierce it with a fork.

In a separate pan, melt two tablespoons of butter (or two tablespoons of olive oil) and saute the mushrooms. Salt to taste and set aside.

When the chicken is ready, remove the lid and remove the chicken to a separate plate. Discard the herbs. Let the sauce mixture simmer for few more minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks and cream together. Slowly add a small amount (about 1/2 cup) of the hot liquid to the eggs and cream and whisk quickly to temper it. Stir the egg mixture into the pan mixture, stirring constantly for about a minute. Add the mushrooms and the chicken. Add the juice of the lemon. Add one tablespoon of butter (or one tablespoon of olive oil).

Ruth Reichl’s Chicken Fricassee

Remove from heat and serve in a large bowl for the table or plate individually. Pool extra sauce around the chicken. Garnish with fresh parsley sprigs. We served this with warm crunchy French bread, the show-off salad and chilled  Pinot Grigio.

In My Country Year, Ruth said this recipe reminded her of when she was living on an island (Ile d’Oleron) off the coast of France in the 1960’s. This recipe will forever now remind us of the back-to-back snow days that finally arrived after many years of anticipation. Cheers to good memories, good cookbooks, and long acquaintances. Happy birthday Ruth Reichl!

Happy New Year: A Recap and What’s Ahead!

Happy New Year dear readers! Hope you had a wonderful holiday season and are now ushering in the new year with a zesty amount of excitement and joy.

2017 was an action-packed year in the Vintage Kitchen as we launched Ms. Jeannie on her around-the-world adventure…

opened the vintage kitchen shop…

moved to a new section of the neighborhood…

Indie made sure we didn’t forget her!

and welcomed a bevy of new readers to the blog thanks in part to a feature on WordPress Discover!

WordPress Discover Feature – December 2017!

From January to December, we cooked in the kitchen, whipping up these vintage recipes…

Clockwise from top left: Anna’s Tomato Soup circa 1928; Tandoori Chicken, Jessie’s Crepes (inspired by Julia Child), Vintage Black Velvet Cocktails, Russian Tea Cakes, Smoked Salmon Roulade, Katharine Hepburn’s Lace Cookies, Pastel Petit Fours circa 1960, Cold Roast Beef circa 1962

and marveled our way through the wiggly world of vintage gelatin molds alongside fellow cross-country-kitcheners Olivia, Harpie, Marianne and Manny…

Clockwise from top left: Jellied Cheese Ring Salad, Molded Cucumber Mousse, Spanish Cream

We learned about old house kitchen renovations with Renee and Michael, old house histories with Ken, and old time collecting with Cindy and her vintage tea towels…

Clockwise from top left: Renne & Michael’s 1940s kitchen renovation, Ken Staffey’s historic house stories and Cindy’s colorful tea towel collection.

and we celebrated a range of holidays from St. Patricks Day to the 4th of July to Christmas with hand pies and bar nuts, brown bread and turkeys…

Clockwise from left: Citrus Brined Turkey, Cherry Hand Pies, Molasses Brown Bread and Sweet Spiced Bar Nuts

We traveled to the two Washingtons – D.C. and Seattle. One in search of the great Julia Child and the other in search of great-grandma Mabel…

We wrote mini-stories on Instragram…

and celebrated year five of the blog!

We read and we watched, listened and researched  and last, but definitely not least, we paired up old items with new owners in an effort to ensure that the stories of time-laden treasures were never forgotten, just  like the 1950’s Chinese enamelware mug that originated in Tianjin, China and now adventures with Sally in Mississippi.

From the shop to Sally’s!

Based on all the fun we had last year, we can hardly wait to get started on 2018!

This January, we’ll be sharing our favorite list of books discovered over the course of the last 12 months, interviewing an inspiring international jet-setter, exploring an ancient art form born out of a kitchen catastrophe and celebrating a very special kitchen companion’s birthday. And since it is the new year and everybody is wishing each other good health and happiness, we will also be cooking up a few vintage health-conscious recipes that were made for dieting (or reducing, as they liked to call it) in the 1940’s. New vintage items, and all the stories they hold will continue to be added to the shop every week, so stay tuned for a colorful and eclectic month here in the Vintage Kitchen!

Cheers to a cheerful January, with much love from The Vintage Kitchen.

Merry Christmas!

 

Dear beloved readers…

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas day full of delicious adventures and fun-filled cheer! You are our joy and our happiness throughout the entire year. Thank you so much for indulging in this gigantic, passion-fueled world of culinary curiosity. Cheers to you!

With much love from,

In The Vintage Kitchen

A Case Study of 1950’s Food Photography: Then and Now

 

There’s a topic of conversation that continuously cycles its way around the Vintage Kitchen. It involves disconcerting colors, one-dimensional shapes, and awkward arrangements. It combines presentation and companion items and fussy table settings.  And it is the ultimate make-or-break factor in the exploration of a recipe or the selection of a cookbook.

In today’s post, we are diving into the world of 1950’s food photography to figure why exactly that decade’s imagery has not translated well to our modern day sense of food aesthetic. Was the camera equipment to blame? Or the food styling? Or an outdated sense of table display? Not necessarily. Through the dissection of one color photograph on the cover of a cookbook published in 1950 and a little research into the field of vintage photography, we discovered one simple reason why food photos of the 50’s lack the luster to ignite our appetites today.

This is the photograph that spawned the conversation…

With it’s floating concoction of grey meat, beige celery, yellow corn (which actually turned out to be barley!), cubed potatoes and a shapeless, unidentifiable rust-colored vegetable (are they carrots? or red peppers? or tomatoes?) this poor soup, the cover star of the cookbook, didn’t have much going for it in the boy-this-looks-delicious-department.

Published in 1950 by the Culinary Arts Institute, an organization devoted entirely to the science of better cookery, the 250 Delicious Soup Recipes Cookbook was edited by Ruth Berolzheimer, a woman who spent the majority of her life writing about food and experimenting with flavors and ingredients.  The recipe featured on the cover was a classic crowd-pleaser perfect for the winter kitchen – Beef and Barley Vegetable Soup – which combined homemade broth, and a variety of vegetables and herbs.

Technically, our cover star soup had everything going for it – complimentary ingredients, expert cooking knowledge and a trusted company to back it up. So how is it that it wound up looking like something you would never want to voluntary make or eat? Is this really what an actual bowl of beef and barley soup looked like at the dinner table in 1950? Further investigation was needed.

We began first with the physical appearance of the photograph, thinking that maybe it was the camera that yielded an unappealing portrait. Afterall, cameras weren’t as sophisticated back then as they are today, and photo editing software didn’t exist and the ability to capture compelling, exacting details in a crisp, clear way was much harder than it is now.  But then we remembered about the food photography of Edward Weston, who took pictures like this in the 1930’s…

Portrait of a Cabbage Leaf, 1931

and we realized that technical abilities of the vintage camera couldn’t be blamed. This cabbage photograph has plenty of compelling, exacting details and it was taken two decades before the beef and barley soup recipe ever came to fruition.

Next, we thought maybe it was the ingredients that doomed the soup’s ability to ever look pretty right from the very beginning.  So we prepared the same exact recipe with the beef and the barley and the rusty red vegetables (which turned out to be carrots and tomatoes). We added the celery, the potatoes, the onions and the fresh thyme and parsley the recipe called for.  It was all the same but it was different because our soup turned out looking this…

Not a grey lump in the batch and lots of color. The difference between the old photo and the new one instantly made us feel better for the soup eaters of 1950. Perhaps, they weren’t eating bland looking food after all.

So how could the same recipe look so different? How could one be grey and murky and the other be bright and vibrant? The answer is black and white, literally.

As it turns out 1950 was the decade when color photography was just beginning to become more affordable and more mainstream. Up until then, black and white film ruled the medium and photographers excelled at setting up shots that looked great in dramatic, colorless settings.  They relied on subjects and styles that would translate bold shapes and dramatic lighting and bring crisp clarity to their compositions in order to reproduce a striking image. This explains everything about our cookbook cover. When we changed the photograph from color to greyscale look how much more appealing the soup became…

Instead of focusing on the colors in the soup, you automatically focus more on the shapes floating in the broth and the overall symbiosis of the whole presentation. That means food stylists, or home economists as they were known up until the mid-1950’s, were used to thinking in the same black and white way as photographers when it came to styling food for the camera.

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, color was something new to learn about and adapt to. It was a baby in a glass shop, a wild dog on a leash, an uncharted course to explore. It was wild and exciting and sexy, but most people didn’t really know how to work with it right away in order to make incredible, indelible images. It required a creative and visual skill set much different from what was learned and achieved through black and white photography. It definitely took time to master.

The cover of this 1950 cookbook is a striking example of using an old mindset on a new medium. Photographers and stylists were used to their past ways of setting up shots for a black and white end result. They were relying on bold shapes, and dark contrasts to tell a black and white story in color.

In the same vein, the soup we made in the Vintage Kitchen doesn’t look nearly as appetizing in black and white as it does in color because our goal was always to reproduce an image in color. In the black and white example, our soup now looks murky and lacks depth and definition.

So this brings us to a fundamental point. Don’t judge a book by its cover or a recipe by its photo, especially when it comes to midcentury vintage cookbooks.  Food photography is an art form that grew into greatness over a long period of time but the recipes have always remained their humble selves.

Hopefully, if you are on the fence about old cookbooks this post will persuade you to give them another chance. The beef and barley vegetable soup may not have looked appetizing on the 1950 cover but it turned out to be delicious in our modern making of it, proving that looks can be deceiving even when it comes to cookbooks.

Cheers to kitchen surprises and food photographers!

Interested in more unexpected kitchen adventures? See what we learned when we explored the land of molded gelatin salads this past summer here.

Ready to experiment with some vintage recipes on your own? Find a bevy of vintage cookbooks in the shop here.

Whimsical Winter Baking: Russian Tea Cake Snowmen

Russian Tea Cakes… those dense little snowy bundles of sweet confectionary sugar, butter, flour, and nuts is a classic Christmas cookie that has been a staple in our holiday baking since I was a little kid. One of the most simple of cookies to make, it has other aliases as well…Mexican Wedding Cakes, Rolling in the Snow, Holy Rollers and the plain Jane, practical name… Pecan Balls.

The history behind these guys is muddy but a popular theory is that they originated in Europe as a tea time snack (hence their name Russian Tea Cakes) and migrated to Mexico with European nuns where they became a popular cookie served at weddings (Mexican Wedding Cakes!).  A friend who grew up in Canada knew them as Rolling in the Snow cookies (how very fun!) and at a church-sponsored flea market in the South, I once saw them advertised as Holy Rollers on the food and beverage table. That could have been someone’s clever name made up just for that day, so I’m not sure if this one has actual traction, but it does pay homage to the nun theory anyway.  And of course, for all the literal lovers out there, the Pecan Ball needs no explanation as to how that name came about since indeed these cookies are ball-shaped and can contain pecans.

Traditionally they look something like this…

and can contain any nuts you like – pecans, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, macademia, etc. My mom always used walnuts and favored the recipe from the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book printed in 1950…

so that became my family tradition as an adult too. Some other recipes include additional ingredients of cinnamon or loose tea, lavender or lemon zest but Betty Crocker’s version is the one we like best.

Russian Tea Cakes

1 cup soft butter

1/2 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar (plus additional following baking)

1 tsp. vanilla

2 1/4 cups sifted flour (Betty recommended Gold Medal flour back in the day)

1/4 tsp. sal

3/4 cup finely chopped nuts

Mix butter sugar and vanilla together in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Sift flour and salt together and mix into butter. Stir in nuts and then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for about 20-30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove dough from fridge and roll into 1″ inch balls* using your hands. Place 2.5 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet and bake until set but not brown (between 10-12 minutes).**  While still warm roll in confectioner’s sugar. Cool and then roll in sugar once again.

* To make snowmen: You will need to form three balls per snowman ranging in size from big (base) medium (middle) small (head). Roll each ball in your hand to shape it into a typical snowball shape and then flatten the big and medium balls on the top and bottom with your hand so that that they will sit on top of each other without rolling off. The smallest ball (the head) should only be flattened on the bottom (so that your snowman will have a round head on top). The snowmen pictured here are three inches in height, so use your judgment when shaping as far as ball sizing. If you want to make bigger snowmen, baking times will need to be extended.

** If you are making snowmen –  Bake all the big bottom base snowballs together on one sheet and then the medium and small balls on another sheet since the smaller balls usually take 1-2 minutes less baking time then the big balls. Your snowball sizes will look something like this…

After you’ve baked and sugared all your cookies, now you are ready for the fun part of decorating. This is what I had on hand in the “props” department…

Orange rinds for the scarf and nose, black peppercorns for the eyes and rosemary branches for the arms. To make the scarf and nose just take a vegetable peeler and peel about 3 inches of rind in one long continues piece. Trim with a sharp paring knife to your desired scarf thickness and curl the rind around your fingers to shape it like a scarf (once the rind dries out it will hold the shape perfectly). Wedge the scarf into the section where the head meets the body.

Press the peppercorns into the head gently. They will stick on their own (this step might take a couple of attempts!).

Cut a thin long triangle out of your excess orange rind (to mimic the shape of a carrot)  and gently press into the head where the nose should be. The orange rind will stick to the cookie on its own but might take a couple of attempts too.

Cut rosemary branches to size and poke into each side of the middle ball.

And now your snowman has come to life! Just like the ones you make in your yard, each one will have his own little personality depending on how you style it. The sky is the limit when it comes to decorating your guy so feel free to get creative if you want to make a hat, a jacket or a corncob pipe. Additional mounds of powdered sugar help set the stage for a little wintertime scene, day or night…

Hope this project adds a little fun to your day! Cheers to a winter wonderland from the sweetest little snowmen in the Vintage Kitchen!

{Old} House Stories: An Interview with Ken Staffey

The Ephraim Burr Beers House, circa 1810 – Clapboard Hill, Westport CT. Read more history about this house here. Photo by Ken Staffey.

Nora Roberts once wrote “it was a mistake to think of houses, old houses, as being empty. They were filled with memories, with the faded echoes of voices. Drops of tears, drops of blood, the ring of laughter, the edge of tempers that had ebbed and flowed between the walls, into the walls, over the years. Wasn’t it, after all, a kind of life? They carried in their wood and stone, their brick and mortar a kind of ego that was nearly, very nearly, human.”

Recalling those faded voices, those human experiences, those memories, the forgotten details and the covered over contributions of the places that Nora nuanced, in today’s post we are tackling a discussion about the very interesting life found in and around old houses of early America as discovered by a modern day history lover. If you are a fan of any old house photo feeds on Instagram, chances are you have come across Ken Staffey’s gorgeous account simply called House Stories.

Ken features primarily photographs of historic homes in the Northeastern United States and dives into the interesting family histories behind them with a mix of interesting facts, personal details, and quirky insights. Most often he features houses from the 18th and 19th century that tell the story of how New England grew up. The places where merchants, farmers, sea captains, doctors, writers, politicians, extraordinary people and everyday citizens raised their families and found their footing among the blooming new frontier called the United States.

Located in Marblehead MA, the Sandin House was built in 1714 for fisherman William Sandin and his wife Joanna. Marblehead was once deemed the greatest town for fishing in New England.

From the bones that make up the frames of these centuries-old places, Ken has pulled stories about past occupants, owners, and architects; about city plans gone awry and country enterprises gone right; about dreams found and opportunities lost, about big events and tiny details, all of which remind us how the past is still very much present in our modern daily lives. We’ve caught up with Ken interview-style to learn more about his passion and his process of bringing history home. Included are his top-picks of places to visit for any architecture enthusiast and his thoughts on where current trends are headed when it comes to living with old houses in a new world.

{Note: Ken’s house photos have been featured throughout this interview. Click on each image to read Ken’s Instagram enties.}

In The Vintage Kitchen: What ignited your idea of posting house stories on Instagram?

Ken Staffey: In the beginning, I posted random photos like everyone else. I found that the house photos seemed to get the best response.  Then I started to add a bit of history along with each home and eventually it evolved into what it is today, House Stories – history told one house at a time.

This house was part of a planned community built in the 1870’s as imagined by Alexander Turney Stewart, a dry goods entrepreneur who emigrated from Ireland to New York.  Read more about this house here.

ITVK:  How do you decide which houses to feature?

KS: I pretty much photograph whatever catches my eye.  Later the challenge of finding some history that goes with the home is a big part of the fun. Just about all the homes I have featured date from the colonial period to about 1920.

In Ken’s post about the 1871 Wells-Catlin House, in Brookline, MA  he talks about the history behind the name of the town. Read more about it here.

ITVK:  Explain a little bit about your process of researching these old houses. Do you find that their histories are pretty easy to obtain or do you find yourself knee-deep in archive vaults and old records?

KS: Thankfully, I am never knee deep in archive vaults and old records, but I am often in deep with virtual equivalents, which is much easier thankfully.  Many old directories and records have been scanned and are now online.  Usually, I will just start with the address and see what I come up with there. Often once I get past the online real estate listing for a home, I can find something interesting about the home or its early occupants.  And thank God for historical societies and preservation groups that have not only saved these wonderful old homes but also recorded a good deal of their history.

Yale graduate Nathan Hale taught school in this shingled house in New London, CT in 1774, a few years before he was accused of being a spy and hung by the British Army during the Revolutionary War. The schoolhouse has been moved several times around town but through the support of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution it is being well maintained and offers tours for visitors.

ITVK: Do you ever speak with the property owners to learn more about each house? If not, do you think that most homeowners are aware of the interesting histories their homes have?

KS: Typically I do not speak with the property owners, but I have had a good handful of requests from owners to feature their homes.  They often know a bit of the history about their homes, but that sometimes can be inaccurate. One family had been retelling stories from their home’s history.  Once I dug a bit, I found that the history had been twisted in the retelling over the years, so it was fun to set the record straight for the owners.

City streets and neighborhoods, in particular, are home to a slew of fascinating stories with so many people moving in and out and coming and going. Ken writes about the history of this street in NYC’s West Village here.

ITVK: Do you live in a historic house yourself? If so, does your house have a fascinating story too?!

KS: I grew up in a house that was built in 1940 and since college, I have always been drawn to apartments in older buildings, most of them over a century old.  The home I now own is 89 years old and was built as part of a wave of new housing to accommodate the thousands of factory workers who found work in the once-thriving factories here in Bridgeport, Connecticut. My home is not historic and the funny thing is that I have never even tried to find any history. I do know that the same family owned the home for decades and people have told me a bit about them here and there.

ITVK:  What are three things that modern architecture lacks that all these great old houses contain?

KS: I am a big fan of all types of architecture, but I am partial to the homes of the past.  I think modern architecture has a style all its own, but what modern homes lack is a history and stories about the people that lived there and the surroundings.  Over time even the most modern of homes will have a story to tell.

One great example of a modern house having a fabulous “new” story to tell was Ken’s post on the First Year Building Project designed by students at the Yale School of Architecture. One hundred years from now (fingers crossed that it survives that long) this house will have made a  marvelous contribution to its neighborhood. Read more about the project here.

ITVK: If you could live in (or own) any one of the houses you have featured to date, which would you choose and why?

KS: I am not sure about a particular house, but I was enamored by the recreated New England village circa 1820-1830 at Sturbridge Village. It is a living museum with interpreters who go about their business as New Englanders did two centuries ago.  The buildings were moved there from around New England, so you can see a village that is free of modern structures and vehicles, which gives you a good idea of life in that era.  Also, you can watch the interpreters engage in activities like farming and weaving as they would in Early America.

Old Sturbridge Village – an 1830’s living history museum.

ITVK:  If you could have cocktails with any famous person, living or dead, in any house in the world, who and where would you choose and why?

KS: It would be interesting to have drinks with someone from the colonial era.  Many of the colonists brought the tradition from England of having beer as a drink instead of whatever and a review of their habits show that it was not unusual for them to have a beer with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The White Horse Tavern in Newport RI was founded in 1673 making it the oldest operating bar in the US. See more historic libation stations on the oldies list here.

ITVK: One of my most favorite houses you’ve featured so far is the Jonathan and Abigail Starr house in Guilford, CT that was built in 1732…

The Jonathan and Abigail Starr House, Guilford CT built in 1732.

You shared this information about the house:

“This Church Street home was built for Jonathan and Abigail Starr in 1732 on land obtained from Jonathan’s father, Comfort Starr. Jonathan was a fourth generation New Englander. His great- great-grandfather was a surgeon, also named Comfort Starr, from Ashford, England, who sailed to America aboard the ‘Hercules’ in 1634. Joining him were his wife, Elizabeth, their three children and three servants. Dr. Starr’s parents clearly had a preference for unique names. His sisters were Suretrust and Constant and his brothers were Joyfull and Jehosaphat. The Starrs of Ashford lived a comfortable life with an estate about 60 miles southeast of London, but their move may have been motivated in part by grief as the grave of their son was said to be “not yet grass-grown” when they set out from the port of Sandwich for the “Plantation called New England in America.”

Do you have any other fun details about this house in particular?

KS: I do not, but I did love the names of the Starr children.  I featured the Comfort Starr house (below) a few days after the Jonathan and Abigail Starr post.

Portrait of Comfort Starr and one of his daughters alongside Ken’s photo portrait of Comfort’s house built in the mid 1650’s and a detailed side view sketch of it’s traditional saltbox style.

While known as the Comfort Starr House, this Guilford home was actually built for Henry Kingsworth around 1646. Mr. Starr, a tailor, purchased the home from Kingsworth’s heirs in 1694. He and his wife Elizabeth raised eight children here: Abigail, Elizabeth, Hannah, Comfort, Submit, Jonathan, Jehoshaphat, and Amy. The home was in the family for almost 200 years. Among the last to live here were seven Starr sisters, who were nicknamed ‘Pleiades’ for the seven sisters constellation. When the last sister, Grace, died at 83 in 1874, the home was sold outside the family. Today it is one of the oldest homes in Connecticut that is still a private residence.

ITVK: Is there one New England town, in particular, that should be on every house enthusiasts must-see list?

KS: I think that depends on what type of architecture you like. If you are a fan of first-period homes (1625-1725), Ipswich, Massachusetts has the highest concentration of those homes in the country.  There are enough clustered together that it is not too hard to imagine what the area looked like centuries ago.

Ipswich, MA. Photos courtesy of the Ipswich Visitor Center.

If Victorian architecture is your thing, you could head to Willimantic, Connecticut.  The town saw rapid growth as the textile mills expanded there.  Because Victorian architecture was in style at the time, there are many Queen Anne homes along with other Victorian treasures.  In both cases, the prevalent style reflects a period of growth followed by an economic downturn, which is why the homes were not updated or replaced with more recent styles.  But those are just two examples, you can find architectural gems just about anywhere.  Once you start looking, you’ll be surprised how much you’ll find.

A collection of Victorian, Greek Revival and Queen Anne styles houses that can be found in Willimantic, Connecticut

ITVK: What is your most favorite style of architecture, and why does it appeal to you?

My tastes have definitely changed to favor the simple early American homes.  If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said Victorian homes, but I have grown to appreciate plain design with few distractions from the colonial period. Also, the history from that period is fascinating.  Life was harder in so many ways in terms of having to work hard to get things done, but there was also simplicity to life without all the distractions of today. That being said, I enjoy modern conveniences as much as anyone else, but I can appreciate a simpler existence.

In addition to telling house histories, Ken also incorporates fun facts and other interesting tidbits relating to holidays or customs or historical pop culture which keeps each post from being formulaic.  Read more about this 1720 Brookfield, CT house here.

ITVK:  Have you had the opportunity to look inside any of the houses you’ve featured? And if so, do you have any memorable kitchen stories from them?

A visit to Louisa May Alcott’s family home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts is a treat. Because 80% of the furnishings are original to the home when the Alcotts lived there, you can see how the author and her family lived.

Orchard House – home to Louisa May Alcott. Read more about her and her house here.

They often endured lean times, but Louisa and her sisters enjoyed putting on shows for guests right there in the parlor. Upstairs, you can see the small desk where Louisa wrote her best selling books. It’s really nothing more than a shelf along the window, but it was there that she produced works that touched readers the world over.

The kitchen at Orchard House where the entire family spent time together. Photo courtesy of louisamayalcott.org

The kitchen is another wonderful window on the past. It was here that the Alcott women cooked, cleaned and drew water from the pump beneath the trap door in the kitchen floor.  The author herself says, “All of the philosophy in our house is not in the study, a good deal is in the kitchen, where a fine old lady thinks high thoughts and does good deeds while she cooks and cleans.” I highly recommend a visit to this house museum.

ITVK: So many old houses revolve around the idea of family, whether they were built to accommodate them, or given as wedding gifts or passed down through generations. Because we are such a transient society these days, and on average only stay 7-10 years in a house before moving on, do you think we are slowly losing a sense of place in our modern day world that connects us to the history of our land? Do you think this is why, fundamentally, old houses still hold so much appeal and nostalgia for us?

KS: Overall we have definitely shifted to a more disposable society, but if you look more closely, there is a quieter celebration of the past. People are still restoring our treasured antique homes and many others will furnish their homes in a throwback style such as farmhouse, colonial or even midcentury modern.

This house was built in Fairfield, CT in the 1990’s but the exterior contains elements of classic French chateau, colonial and federal styles that could give the impression that it is older than it actually is. Read more about it here.

 

This house in Westport, CT was also built in the last 20 years. New to look old, it was modeled after early colonial designs. Read more about it here.

Also, there are more people drawn to be what we now call “makers.”  They may be crafters, foodies, or designers and together they have recreated an echo of the cottage industries of our ancestors.  Two centuries ago, artisans worked and sold their goods out of their homes and today there are plenty of people working, living and creating from their homes.  So, I think we are more connected to our homes than we realize today.

The Roe House, built in the 1680’s, now serves as the Port Jefferson, New York Chamber of Commerce. Read more about it here.

 

In New York City’s Soho neighborhood this building originally hosted a tobacco shop in the early 1800’s. Now it’s a clothing store with a 19th-century murder story to tell. Read more about it here.

 

This house built in 1781 in Litchfield, CT has been home to a number of cottage industries throughout its life including an apothecary shop, a grocery store and now a doctor’s office. Read more about it here.

Does place dictate who we are or who we have the potential of becoming? Not always.  But it certainly does have the opportunity to indulge us and to nurture our life’s pursuits just like Orchard House had done with Louisa May Alcott who drew so much of her own environment into her works of fiction. Had Louisa never grown up in that brown clapboard house would Little Women have been the same book we know today?

Orchard House photographed sometime between 1860-1920. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Images.

Like dipping your toe into the pool of history and watching the ripple effect the entire body of water, Ken’s House Stories are mini in content but mighty in impact. He shows us that behind every person stands a physical structure that was impacted by them or for them. He reminds us that a person’s individual history, although singular at the time eventually becomes our collective history as a nation. One country formed by billions of individual contributions. Big, small, humble, grand.. the old houses stand as truth showing us where we have been and where we have the potential to go.

A sampling of houses Ken has featured on House Stories that range in age from the 1670’s to the 1860’s.

A very big cheers to Ken for spotlighting the stories of our country’s founding families. Find him on Instagram here. And cheers to all the people who loved, saved and protected our early American architecture from re-development and decline and continue to do so every day.

Other historic architecture-related posts from the Vintage Kitchen can be found here…

Other interviews by artisians, craftspeople, collectors and interesting characters from around the world can be found here.