Timely lessons from Colonial times

Vic and I have just returned from a fabulous trip to Virginia and North Carolina that was filled with food, fun, family and photos. The occasion was the wedding of our nephew, Kortney Wilson, my only brother's only son, to Kelly Brinson in Raleigh, N.C. This trip also gave us a glimpse back in history to see how people lived during Colonial times as we visited Shirley Plantation and the restored town of Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

Today, we have a global crisis because of all of the carbon dioxide that people are pouring into the air as we burn fossil fuels to generate electricity and transport goods. It was fascinating to see how people lived before electricity and fast global transport changed our lives.

Our first stop was Shirley Plantation near Williamsburg. Founded in 1613, this plantation is the oldest family business in the U.S. The plantation was named after Lady Cessalye Shirley, who never left England to see the plantation that was owned by her husband, Sir Thomas West. Upon his death, the plantation was purchased by Edward Hill I in 1638 and has been in that family ever since. Eleven generations of the Hill and Carter families have lived there, where they still grow crops of cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans. The family ceased growing tobacco, a common crop in that area, before the Civil War.

Construction of the present plantation mansion began in 1738, and it is one of the finest examples of an intact 18th-century plantation that remain in Virginia. Its flying staircase and Queen Anne-style forecourt are the only remaining examples of this type of architecture. But it was the self-sufficiency of the plantation that fascinated me.

During hot Southern summers before electricity, the residents of the plantation had ice to preserve foods, cool their drinks and make ice cream. One of the four brick buildings in the forecourt of the plantation was a large brick icehouse. In winter, they cut ice from freshwater ponds and hauled it by horse- or oxen-drawn sleds to the icehouse, where they stacked the blocks in a 21-foot-deep, brick-lined hole beneath the icehouse. An elaborate, brick-lined drainage system allowed meltwater to drain to the James River. The icehouse provided enough ice to last them through autumn.

The current garden area at Shirley Plantation is now planted mainly in flowers, but during Colonial times, it would have grown vegetables and herbs for the entire family and staff. A root cellar the size of our kitchen provided winter storage for apples, potatoes, carrots and other crops that store well.

During Colonial times, hogs were allowed to run wild in the woods to feed themselves. The brick smokehouse on the property was used for curing hams, bacon and other foods that can be preserved for long-term storage. The building still radiated the wonderful aroma of smoked meat.

A brick dovecote provided housing for doves, which flew out to forage on their own during the day. To get some squab for dinner, they only needed to visit the dovecote in the evening after the doves had flown back to roost. Stables and a henhouse provided housing for other farm animals.

With a small mill set up in their huge storage shed, they could grind their own corn and wheat. And because the plantation was situated on the James River, they also had fresh fish and shellfish. Shirley Plantation was a model of self-sufficiency during the days before electricity and global transport changed how we live and eat.

Our next stop was the restored historic district of Colonial Williamsburg, where we stayed in a lovely room at Marketplace Tavern. Thomas Jefferson stayed at this tavern when he was attending law school. I joked to Vic that we were staying in 250-year-old student housing. Furnished with a four-poster bed and Colonial accessories, the room had all the modern conveniences you could want — air conditioning, television and indoor plumbing. Jefferson never had it so good.

Once we parked our car, we walked everywhere in the village. We had dinner at Chowning's Tavern, a boisterous place for the "ordinary sort" where people were seated at tables with strangers as seats opened up. Strolling entertainers in period costumes provided music at the tables with violin and guitar, and the foods offered were from recipes that dated back to Colonial times.

After dinner, we walked the streets of Williamsburg, admiring the gardens and beautifully restored houses. Each house had an adjoining garden and orchard in separate, fenced-in sections. In the 1700s, people living in the village let their sheep and cattle graze communally in the grassy commons. They had almost everything that they needed to eat right at hand. Apple and peach crops could be preserved by drying or by turning them into cider or fermented beverages. Corn grown in nearby fields went to the mill to be ground, and was a staple in the diet along with beans, peas and pumpkins.

I bought a Williamsburg cookbook that is loaded with recipes that date back to the Colonial era. As we try to grow much of our own produce here in our tiny Huntington Beach yard, I am envious of the size of the gardens and orchards that we saw. In those days, the people couldn't just run to the store in winter and buy peaches and grapes that had come from Chile. They planned ahead, grew their own food and preserved the bounty of harvest time for future use.

While I have no desire to return to the era of no air conditioning and no indoor plumbing, I do plan to preserve more of my own harvest this summer as we strive for even greater food self-sufficiency.

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