Diane Fish's ongoing fascination with Civil War history was sparked in childhood when she took a trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. When she had her own children, they helped Fish discover new passions that immerse her in the era every day.
Fish, 62, lives in Commack with her husband, Nelson, two of her three children and her mother.
She discovered re-enacting when her son, who was 15 at the time, asked to join a re-enactors' unit. Fish recalled that she was reluctant to let him "go play with guns with men I didn't know," so she went along -- and found that she loved doing it.
Fish, an avid camper and hiker, has always been interested in natural history and the outdoors. After spotting a flier on a bulletin board at her children's school, she applied for a job at the Suffolk County Archaeological Association (scaa-ny.org). She has been teaching in the association's Native Life Program at Hoyt Farm Park in Commack and the Colonial Life Program at Blydenburgh County Park in Smithtown for almost 19 years.
Over the years, Fish has developed her own educational programs for children in historic cooking, historic games and the one-room schoolhouse. One of her favorite places to do historic cooking demonstrations is Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historic Society, where there is a working hearth.
At the Northport Historical Society, Fish will lead students in grades second through sixth in a minicamp featuring Civil War-era cooking. From April 7-9, campers will learn a variety of historical food preparation methods and recipes and learn to play Civil War-era games. The cost for the three-day program is $75 for members and $90 for nonmembers. For more information, email nhsdirector@ northporthistorical.org.
To contact Fish about her programs, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
How did you become interested in historical recipes?
I've been cooking since I was 10 years old. About 12 years ago, when I started re-enacting, it was a natural progression to do historic cooking. I cooked for my Civil War re-enacting unit. It just became an offshoot.
What period do you focus on?
When I started to become interested in cooking historic recipes, I had to make a cutoff someplace because every time I see another cookbook I want it. I decided I'd stop at 1865 and go backward. I've cooked old Dutch recipes, I've cooked medieval food, I've done ancient Native American cooking.
How is this kind of cooking different from what we do today?
One of the things to keep in mind about food is that it has an element of fashion. When Thomas Jefferson came back from France and had learned about ice cream, everyone wanted to be invited to his home to eat ice cream. Spices go in and out of fashion. For example, mace was very common historically, but is not common today. Studying old recipes and actually preparing them is a way of connecting with our past and getting a window into what people were like 150 or 200 years ago.
Have you come across a lot of foods we might not be familiar with today?
There was a much wider variety of food people ate. In some cookbooks you can see a dozen different types of birds that we don't even consider. All parts of the animal were consumed, and there are various types of animals people used to eat that we don't eat today.
How do you choose among your recipes?
I try to pick things that are different but not so different that the public will be afraid to try them. In Hannah Glasse's book, one of the things she talks about is rabbit fricassee. I've made it for my family, we all love it. But I don't make that for the public. I've made it with chicken and told the public that it was more commonly made with rabbit, but also made with chicken.
How do you prepare your audience to eat historic food?
I tell people, when you're replicating historic recipes, be prepared for things to taste good but different from what we're culturally used to tasting. I very much enjoy seeing people taste the foods that I've prepared and how delighted they are and how they enjoy it and appreciate the different flavors. I enjoy sharing the history of it, and sharing the method, as well as the taste.
Where does this recipe come from?
Hannah Glasse was the Julia Child of her time period. To food historians today, she's a known name. Her book is still in print, and available online. I like this recipe because it has familiar ingredients prepared in a way that is unfamiliar to cooks today. The result is surprisingly wonderful. It's not difficult, although sewing up the cucumbers requires some dexterity.
TO FORCE CUCUMBERS
A recipe from "The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy" by Hannah Glasse, 1796 revised.
(Since her goal is to give people a window into the past, Fish has shared the recipe with its original spelling, the letter "f" frequently replacing the lowercase "s." Even so, the recipe is easy to follow.)
Take three large cucumbers, fcoop out the pith, fill them with fried oyftcrs feafoned with pepper and falt; put on the piece again you cut off, few it with a coarfe thread, and fry them in the butter the oyfters are fried in: then pour out the butter and fhake in a little flour, pour in half a pint of gravy, fhake it round and put in the cucumbers; feafon it with a little pepper and falt; let them ftew foftly till they are tender, then lay them in a plate and pour the gravy over them: or you may force them with any fort of force-meat you fancy, and fry them in hog's lard, and then ftew them in gravy and red wine. Or may be forced with fried onions.