A Taste of the Season
by Laura Bien
A weird political kitchen colander, an elaborate silver tea set from the late Ann Arbor philanthropist Philip Bach (right), and an elegant wooden mini-sleigh resembling a baby carriage on runners, once used to whiz local children around on the snow, highlight the Taste of the Season exhibition at the Museum on Main Street, evoking winters past.
Near an array of such period kitchen tools as a "lemoner," intricate cookie cutters, and carved wooden butter molds hangs a metal colander whose punched drainer holes spell out GRANT COLFAX. After the Civil War, Republicans Ulysses Grant and Schuyler Colfax were elected president and vice-president, taking office in 1869. Recalling the fervent political nature of many early area newspapers, I wondered whether this item was campaign swag distributed by stumpers intent on implanting their message in homes, or perhaps a sort of nineteenth-century bumper sticker purchased by an ardent if voteless woman expressing her political convictions in the kitchen in lieu of a polling place. I imagined the colander displayed extra prominently in a home with a Democratic husband.
As I pondered this relic, museum curator Alice Cerniglia entered the room with a visitor and chatted about a dress on display by the ornate Bach tea set. Examining the set, I tried to puzzle out the functions of its eight curlicued vessels crowned with cupids. A samovar for hot water held a small Bunsen burner underneath, and two paired items were clearly a sugar and creamer, but for all I knew the remainder could have been canopic jars. When I overheard Cerniglia speculate on the construction of a wooden fan by saying, "It was the eighteen seventies, so they had scroll saws," I knew she was the person to ask.
Cerniglia revealed that a mysterious globe was the butter chiller, and an urnlike vase was the slop jar. She pinged the table bell on display, explaining that hanging sashes in a house's various rooms once connected to kitchen bells,
rung to summon servants. "Now we have what, cell phones?" she laughed.
When I asked her why a display of dainty period Christmas cards showed images of roses and leaves instead of more familiar iconography, she drew a connection to the pagan origins of Christmas, with ancient solstice-celebration use of evergreens signifying the endurance of life at the turning point of midwinter darkness. I dimly recalled corroborating biblical verses in Jeremiah 10:2-5, forbidding the use of what sounds awfully like a (pagan) Christmas tree.
Period recipes, an entire elaborately set dinner table, and a dinner-table chart showing the proper placement of "Gravy for Ducks," "Parsnips," and "Oyster Sauce," among thirteen dinner dishes, round out the exhibition, which will remain on display through February.
[Originally published in January, 2005.]