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Neville Plantation cooks Colonial

Pittsburgh Post GazetteThursday, September 06, 2007
By Gretchen McKay,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Plenty of today’s cooks plant gardens in their back yards so they can enjoy fresh vegetables and herbs. Yet back in Colonial times, only the well-to-do could have afforded the so-called kitchen garden.

Eighteenth-century houses lacked both running water and hoses, of course, so homeowners would have had to rely on slave or servant labor to fetch and carry those heavy buckets of water from a nearby stream or catch drain. Ditto with keeping the garden beds free from weeds.

Adding to the cost were the plants themselves. As Rob Windhorst, president of Neville Historical Associates, points out, most seeds used by Colonists had to be shipped from Europe and were extremely expensive. The fact, then, that Woodville Plantation — the Virginia plantation-style home that Revolutionary War hero John Neville built in Collier in the late 1700s — boasted a kitchen garden with four large beds speaks volumes about his wealth.

Not that his servants planted anything fancy, of course. Strictly utilitarian, the gardens — planted in a continuous rotation so that something was always ready to harvest — contained the basic building blocks of Colonial cooking: root vegetables, melons and beans along with herbs such as lemon balm and lovage, a close cousin to celery.

Two hundred years later, the gardens are once again bearing fruit, having been sown since 1997 with a variety of veggies and herbs gleaned from heirloom seed projects. Many, in fact, are strains of the original plants that Mr. Neville and his family would have enjoyed on their dinner table so long ago.

On Sunday, the public gets a chance to see how these foods would have been harvested and cooked when the plantation opens its doors for its first Harvest Day.

This late in the season, many of the garden’s offerings are long gone. But it’s still full of early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, a compact, tear-shaped cabbage that fit easily in market baskets, and long Chantenay carrots, a French variety that was good for winter storage. There’s also plenty of horehound, a licorice-like medicinal herb, along with lemon balm, mint and chamomile.

Among the more unusual 18th-century dishes that will be demonstrated using traditional methods (i.e., cooked over an open fire in cast-iron pots and pans) is a meatloaf-like “forced” cabbage adapted from Hannah Glasse’s 1745 cookbook, “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.” Docents also will prepare fried carrot puffs, a sweet, doughnut-like side dish.

Woodville Plantation’s Harvest Day Celebration takes place Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. at 1375 Washington Pike, Collier. Admission is $5 for adults and $10 for families. For more information, visit or call 412-221-0348.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633