Taste of pioneer life

Provided photo Volunteers and Vermilion County Conservation District staff prepare for the annual Thanksgiving at the Cabin in Forest Glen Preserve near Westville, Ill. Some of the food is cooked on the limestone hearth inside the Pioneer Homestead cabin.

WESTVILLE, Ill. — Hundreds of visitors to Forest Glen Preserve were transported back in time to experience and taste Thanksgivings from bygone times.

The annual Thanksgiving at the Cabin featured Vermilion County Conservation District staff and volunteers in 19th-century garb cooking foods from that era with locally grown and harvested ingredients over coals outside the home and inside with the fireplace crane.

About 350 in attendance sampled a range of dishes and enjoyed the sunny, mild fall afternoon.

“We always change the menu up a little bit, but there are some standards that we do. We usually have mushrooms flavored with herbs and wine,” said Susan Biggs Warner, historic interpreter.

The mushrooms for the appetizer are foraged from the park and additional ones purchased at the store, so there’s plenty to go around. The herbs are grown in the garden next to the pioneer cabin.

Other samples included locally produced pork, and corn custard from corn milled nearby in Indiana Eggs for the custard were from a neighboring farm.

Persimmon white chocolate bread pudding was served for dessert. The persimmons also were collected in the park.

“We try to get everything locally. We can’t get everything, but we try to take great advantage of the farmers markets and the forage,” Biggs Warner said.

Education

The popular event draws a range of folks — some that are aware of the locally produced food and forage opportunities, others that just realized they can collect mushrooms and those that dine out often and don’t bring home locally grown food.

“Hopefully, those people will broaden their horizon,” Biggs Warner said.

“Years ago, it used to be when you heard of ‘gourmet food’ it had to come from somewhere far off, but nowadays what we think of as our special foods are things that are raised right here.”

The event has evolved since it began about 25 years ago, but the one constant always has been about the local food.

“We started out with the idea of that Little House on the Prairie sort of thing where everybody gets some of the food that they thought of from their memories of eating at grandma’s house. Then the people would watch us cook, and at the end some of our staff would eat it,” Biggs Warner said.

For several years, Revolutionary War re-enactors would help prepare the food that then was shared with the conservation district staff and volunteers.

“We did that for a while, and eventually it got to the point where we whittled down our help as we got better at it and we’d have a few people doing it and then give away all of our samples,” Biggs Warner said.

“It’s gone through several different ideas, but what it is now is we want people to see the historical aspect, so we dress in costumes and cook on the fires inside and outside, and we have a crane that hangs on the fireplace inside.

“We’re a conservation district, and we also want people to realize they can forage for food, so we want them to see the wild food, and we also really want people to realize and appreciate what goes on as far as the growing of food in our area.”

Tom C. Doran can be reached at 815-780-7894 or tdoran@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow him on Twitter at: @AgNews_Doran.

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