Why do we eat the things that we eat? How did we develop our American menu? At the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, in Oella, Maryland, the Foodways Program uses experiential archaeology to provide some answers.
The 140-acre park in Baltimore County’s Patapsco Valley is a time capsule: an island of nature, a conservatory for learning crafts, and a celebration of the life and accomplishments of one of America’s first African American scientists. Born in 1731, Benjamin Banneker gained distinction in mathematics and astronomy by successfully predicting a solar eclipse, researching and publishing his own almanac, developing tables of ephemeris, and assisting the surveying of Washington, D.C.
The park presents Banneker’s history and achievements and recreates a small piece of his world: his gardens and orchards, the practical crafts he used, and a reproduction of his cabin. Inside the cabin, historical interpreters demonstrate open hearth cooking, focusing on the foods enjoyed by Banneker, his family, and his community. Each Foodways Program reflects seasonal availability of various foods and the realities of life in Patapsco Valley after the Revolutionary War.
Exploring the 1790 Menu
Despite his largely rural surroundings, Banneker could dine on an international menu of foods and spices. Proximity to Chesapeake Bay and the nearby Frederick Road offered access to an expanded culinary selection. Today’s historical interpreters use recipes taken from period texts to create meals that explore the sights, smells, and flavors of Banneker’s time. This experiential archaeology viscerally opens 1790 for visitors to study and enjoy.
The park’s Foodways Program also offers hands on workshops; guests can participate in the day’s cooking, learn open hearth techniques, or bake cookies in the wood-fired cob oven. The autumn “Preserving the Harvest” workshop is particularly popular.
Along with the authentic cabin, the park has a museum, gardens, natural and historic sites, and miles of trails connecting to the #9 Trolley Trail leading into historic Ellicott City.
For more information, contact the park at: Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum: 300 Oella Avenue, Oella, MD 21228; 410-887-1081
Johnnycakes—corn cakes—are a staple of the Foodways Program at Banneker cabin. This version is a bit more complicated, and much tastier, than the standard “hoe cake” or “ash cake”.
2 cups corn meal
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons shortening
Pinch of salt
Scald the milk and stir in the meal, molasses, shortening, and salt. Work it into a consistent dough, adding water as needed. Press dough into thin, flat cakes and bake or grill until browned.
We use cornmeal ground at Union Mills, near Westminster, MD.