Living History: 19th-Century Gal
While most people are trying to keep up with today’s fashion trends and fads, Melissa Alexander is preserving the fashions of the past—from the 1810s to be exact. For the past six years, the 2015 graduate has embraced the world of living history.
“Being able to live history has completely taken over my life,” she says. “I really can’t call it a hobby anymore.”
Alexander embraces 1810-1820 as they were good for both fashion and events—the War of 1812, the Industrial Revolution, the debut of Jane Austen novels. The early years of the 19th century rejected the elaborate, ornate pre-French Revolution fashion trends and instead embraced a Grecian-inspired style with clean, white, draped clothing. As the 1810s continued, fashion transitioned to the Victorian era and became more elaborate.
Using these clothing trends as her base, Alexander learned to create her own clothes. “It was kind of a necessity thing. I could either be in the hobby, learn how to sew and make my own clothes, or I couldn’t be in the hobby because it would be too much for me to buy everything outright,” she says.
Building historically accurate clothes is no simple task. First she searches through a library of images—portraits, fashion plates, surviving garments. Once she finds a dress, she investigates how it was made. It can take a week to several months to finish a dress, because everything is done by hand.
As the living history intern at Historic Locust Grove in Louisville, Ky., she also cooked historically accurate recipes using period technology—cast iron pots set over coals all day long. “It’s time-consuming,” she says. “You can’t just plop a pie in the oven and walk away and go play video games.”
Her most memorable dish was Yorkshire Christmas pie. “Think ‘turducken’ in modern terms.” The pie was a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a Cornish hen stuffed with chicken breast—all inside a pie crust.
“Birds were not easy to preserve. So having a Yorkshire Christmas pie with all the different kinds of birds was a sign of status,” she says. “It showed that you could buy these birds fresh and eat them the same day.
Melissa Alexander’s historic Yorkshire Christmas Pie recipe:
“First make a good standing crust, let the wall and bottom be very thick; bone a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon. Season them all very well, take half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of nutmeg, a quarter ounce of cloves, and half an ounce of black pepper, all beat fine together, two large spoonfuls of salt, and then mix them together. Open the fowls all down the back, and bone them; first the pigeon, then the partridge, cover them; then the fowl, then the goose, and then the turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the crust, so as it will look only like a whole turkey; then have a hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Cut it to pieces; that is, joint it; season it, and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other side of woodcocks, moor game, and what sort of wild fowl you can get. Season them well, and lay them close; put at least four pounds of butter into the pie, then lay on your lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a very hot oven, and will take at least four hours. This crust will take a bushel of flower. In this chapter you will see how to make it. These pies are often sent to London in a box of presents; therefore the walls must be well built.”
Her old-fashioned American apple pie recipe:
Pastry for top and bottom crust
4 Granny Smith (or other tart) apples
¼ cup sugar
½ stick of butter in chunks
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp mace
¼ cup wine or rose-water
Instructions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Peel and core apples, and cut into eighths. Lay piecrust in plate and pour in apples, then lightly cover with top crust and vent (do not crimp the edges). Bake for 30 minutes or until top crust browns. Let cool until you can handle the top crust; lightly separate top and bottom crusts and remove top crust, setting it to the side. Sprinkle in sugar, butter, cinnamon, mace, and wine or rose-water. Lightly combine ingredients, replace top crust, and enjoy this 200-year-old pie recipe from the first American cookbook!