Hungry for History

Hungry for History

At the local culinary society CHoW, members indulge a taste for the past

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Kari Barrett of Rockville loves cooking so much you’d think she was born wearing an apron.

As a child, she sat in the kitchen watching her grandmother snapping beans and baking biscuits. Sometimes she’d perch on her nana’s knee and help with the simpler prep work; other times she’d just soak in the smells and sounds.

When she was 10, her mother got her a Betty Crocker Cookbook so she could start cooking herself. “I’ve always been drawn to sweets,” says Barrett, 47, a communications and outreach adviser for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “So I made a lot of desserts—snowball cookies, toffee bars and snickerdoodles.”

In high school, she scored a job shucking oysters and making crab salad at Crisfield Seafood Restaurant on the Eastern Shore. Working with fresh shellfish, she realized that she was among the many chefs who depended on the Chesapeake for their livelihood.

Years later, Barrett stumbled across Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor by Baltimore-born Wallis Warfield Windsor. The 1942 tome contained several regional favorites from Maryland, and Barrett discovered a passion for early American cuisine.

More than a decade ago, she joined the Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C.—a group of food history lovers affectionately known as CHoW. “There were historians, cookbook writers, food and travel experts, and academic scholars,” says Barrett, a former president of the group. “I felt like there was something to learn.”

CHoW was founded in 1996 by Shirley Cherkasky, a retired sociology professor with a longtime interest in understanding history through dining habits and cuisine. The club since has grown from a few members to more than 125, most of them middle-aged or retirees.

Like many members, Barrett loves to cook bygone foods. To achieve authenticity, she has become a hearth cook, using a fireplace instead of a stove. Whether she’s roasting meat on a spit or baking rockfish from the Chesapeake Bay on a water-soaked plank, Barrett finds it “fun to play with fire.”  

The oldest recipe she has tackled is an onion soup from the 16th century, but she mostly cooks regional favorites from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “It’s not that complicated,” she says, “though it can be tough figuring out the recipes because measurements weren’t listed.”

From September through May, Barrett and other club members gather monthly for a potluck and lecture in a nondescript community meeting room at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center in downtown Bethesda.

At a meeting in December, chairs are set up in rows facing a podium and screen. The counter along one side of the room serves as a buffet table. The dishes that members contribute for the potluck can be related to the day’s speaker, though people often just bring what they feel like sharing.

Each plate and bowl has a handwritten placard in front of it. There are cranbrosia bars, blue cheese wafers and a gloriously aromatic applesauce gingerbread, sweetened with sorghum and accompanied by gooseberry sauce. The smell of ginger, cinnamon and cloves permeates the room.

One platter boasts “Cajun macarons,” which look more like the Jewish deli favorite than the delicate French dessert, though not really resembling either.

“What makes them Cajun?” one member wonders aloud.

“Don’t worry, they’re not spicy,” another assures her.

Conversations burble—one pair discusses liquidating a vintage cookbook collection as a trio mourns the loss of Gourmet magazine, which turned off the burners a little more than two years ago.

Then Vice President Katy Hayes of Laurel, a 59-year-old archivist for Bowie State University, raps a jam jar on a table at the front of the room. The more than 60 members drift to their seats, promising to continue conversations after the lecture.

Hayes calls for any “whatzits” that members might want to share. Attendees try to guess the identity and purpose of these food-related gadgets. At past meetings, members have presented all sorts of thingamajigs, including a barbaric-looking wooden club that turned out to be a breadfruit masher from the South Pacific, and an accordioned chamber on stilts revealed to be a vintage hard-boiled egg peeler. And this: a six-armed setting that looked like it was meant to display a giant diamond, but was actually a sterling silver Victorian-era grapefruit holder.

It’s tough, however, to stump this crowd. “Someone figures it out almost every time,” says Claudia Kousoulas, 54, director of the club’s board and a freelance food writer living in Bethesda. “Our members really know their stuff.”

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