Cheese Ladders, Firkins, Baby Cages and Other Cooking Curiosities

The Davis Swinging butter churn, circa 1879.

EAST HAMPTON—Of all the beautiful, puzzling and seemingly anachronistic objects from What’s Cooking: East Hampton Kitchens 1648–1948, an exhibit that ran at the East Hampton Historical Society this past fall, the one that resonated most with me was the “baby cage,” an ominous—and unfortunately named—wooden container where a 17th-century mother cooking at an open fire or massive wood stove could quickly stow any toddler that might wander too close to the hearth. (Think of it as a Pack-’N-Play, only not foldable and painted a very dark shade of black.) The baby cage had a sort of feeding tray where a baby might find food or toys, and as historical society director Richard Barons discreetly pointed out to our tour group, little holes drilled through the bottom of the box-shaped container. “For drainage,” he added quietly.
We’re always looking for useful tips on cooking and eating wisely with young children. The baby cage, although long extinct, shows that sometimes the right way to involve kids in kitchen tasks is to not involve them, so the parent can get on with preparing the meal, tidying and everything else we need to do to keep a home.
But this petite and meticulously displayed exhibit of 300 items, curated by Barons and Frank Newbold, the chair of the society’s collection committee, provides inspiration and guidance for our locavore-leaning modern food ways. Consider the extensive evidence it presents that barter and small-scale backyard homesteading were essential parts of East Hampton culture until just a half century ago. The diversity of butter churns and butter molds found in the society’s collection, and gathered from local households, shows that most people made their own butter and many probably kept a cow in the yard (or had access to fresh milk from nearby). The society’s collection includes at least 10 cheese ladders—used to make square wheels of cheese—indicating to Barons that, at a certain time, “probably every home on Main Street owned one. “Cheese curds were one of the most popular homemade treats in the 1700s.”

People who regularly drank coffee probably roasted it at home, and definitely ground it—by hand—at home. A long wall-mounted display of hearth tools demonstrates that open fire cooking need not be purely utilitarian or blunt. There were tools for keeping exact temperature, precise cutting and careful browning of the tops of pastries. Instead of immersion blenders and food processors, there were berry mashers (as opposed to potato mashers), meat juice presses and sugar sheers.
Even if cheese ladders have been replaced by more modern tools and techniques, today’s DIY culture might feel at home with some of these objects, or might be creative enough to replicate their uses, sort of like Sarah Lohman, the Queens-based historical gastronomist who took on the task of making ice cream from 1890. Consider an egg boiler intended to be placed on a table in a sort of performance art: boiling water was poured in the bottom, six eggs fit above, and the device was shut for as long as it took for the top-mounted hourglass to run out, when the top would be opened and the eggs divvied up.
We may not encounter the same sort of craftspersonship in cookware today. “Like so many things in the 19th century, it’s over-engineered,” Barons said of a tabletop butter churn that had assorted drainage gutters to catch any spillage, or baking tins that were keystoned ever so slightly to allow easy extraction of whatever was baking. Rolling pins and butter molds were made from lignum vitae, a super-hard Caribbean wood brought north by 18th-century whalers. There are stackable sieves and corner cupboards with precisely routed slots for particular tools that would make Ikea designers drool.
This exhibit, on display at the Clinton Academy Museum at 151 Main Street in East Hampton, was actually the culmination of nearly three years of research. Historical societies all over Long Island had conferred on a topic that they might jointly present, and settled on food. So far, the East Hampton Historical Society
show is the only one that has actually been mounted. Hopefully, it will serve to prompt some of the other historical societies to dust off their butter churns and baby cages this winter.
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