Wholesome eating exhibit at Bartow-Pell Mansion explores rich history of food

The year is 1852, and fall has just begun to creep his fingers over New York state. Though the first frost is not yet upon us, the chill in the air suggests it will be soon. However, the kitchen of the Bartow’s home is anything but chilly, with everyone bustling about to prepare dinner, an elaborate affair, especially today! There are visitors from Philadelphia, cousins or something of the like, and all the latest foods are being perfected in Mrs. Bartow’s kitchen. The smell of sugared apples fills the air as the familiar clank-clink of a carriage is heard on the drive. The guests have arrived…

The Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum has just debuted a new exhibition focused on wholesome eating and the dining practices of nineteenth century New York.  In the 21st century, most people are focused on the latest diet, new vegan recipes, or eating as much junk food as possible on their “cheat day.” While this fascination with what we eat may seem as if it came with the rise of social media, it is in fact centuries old.

Social media is just the new outlet for ideas about healthy eating. Whether it be new protein shakes or the latest vegetable from Asia, we’re constantly looking for foods to make us thinner, smarter, stronger. The same was true for families like the Bartows in the nineteenth century.

The Bartows’ wealth allowed them access to foods that may not have been readily available to other families in the area. Books called “domestic manuals” were a cross between a cookbook and ‘how to run a home.’

“There was a lot of pressure on women at the time to have perfect homes, and how they dressed their children, what they served their family and guests was scrutinized,” said Caitlyn Sellar, the curator for this exhibit. “In the front hall there’s a book by Sarah Tyson Rorer, an author who wrote many cookbooks. The page we have it opened to is a list of kitchen ‘essentials.’ Some of these things are obscure, but others are only used by master chefs, and yet they were said to be basic for setting up the kitchen.” Literature like these manuals dictated what women would serve their family, and their guests.

What was eaten was not always reliant on the latest food trends. “The types of food that families like the Bartows (ate) were influenced by what was available, but also by the literature of the time, and social expectations,” Sellar remarked.

The exhibit will run through November 19. If you’d like to visit, more information is available at bartowpellmansionmuseum.org