Sunday, December 21, 2014

Felicity's Trip to Colonial Williamsburg!

A Peek into the Pantry went on a field trip!

I first went to Colonial Williamsburg when I was nine years old, and it's all American Girl's fault. Or, well, more accurately, I probably would have found my way down there eventually, because my mom and her family made it a quasi frequent stop on a number of summer roadtrips during her childhood, and she's always had a soft spot for the place. I've been a couple times, but we've never gone during the one time of year everyone says is really special to visit: Christmas! So this year, we decided to change that and go see what all the fuss is about.

This isn't going to be a traditional blog post from me because I didn't actually cook anything, but since we were visiting such a great historic site that's well known for its food - I've used recipes from their official food blog History is Served several times in the history of A Peek into the Pantry - I figured it might be fun to do a spotlight on what we ate while we were in town!

For those not in the know, Felicity Merriman is actually from Williamsburg, Virginia, and Colonial Williamsburg was apparently part of the initial inspiration for the American Girl line. Back before Mattel bought the company, there was actually an official Felicity inspired tour of Williamsburg, and I was lucky enough to be able to go on one when I first visited in the summer of 1999. It was one of the last years they did it, so I consider myself very lucky to have been able to go. Back then, it was very common to see legions of girls tromping around the city dragging their Felicitys or other American Girls along with them (and you can absolutely bet that I was one of those kids and apparently still am), but between the cancellation of the tour and Felicity's retirement, it's become a less common sight. People still remember her, though! I can't tell you how many people - both tourists and interpreters - immediately recognized her and got excited that I'd brought her with me. One of the women we spoke with actually met Valerie Tripp and was heavily involved in Felicity's original launch party back in 1991! They also still sell American Girl sized dresses, hats, cloaks and other clothing accessories, and while I was trying to decide which one to get for Felicity, a girl carrying an Isabelle and her sister who was apparently shopping for her Kit made small talk with me because she liked Felicity a lot, too, although she quickly pointed out that she liked Isabelle because they had the same name and were from the same neck of the woods. Very cute!

Williamsburg is famous for their Christmas festivities mostly for the decorations they put up. Apparently, as part of your lease if you live in one of the historic buildings, you're required to put up a wreath and other greenery for Christmas, and can either hire someone to make one for you, or you can do it yourself. (You are also allowed to display decorations for other holidays if you don't celebrate Christmas - we saw a Menorah in one window!) It's pretty impressive to see what both amateur and professional wreath designers come up with, and you can really tell how much love and care went into each design. Some of the buildings do themed designs - a tavern might have pewter or tin mugs in the design, while the post office's wreath this year had quills and scrolls of paper - while others just do festive wreaths with typical decorations like pine cones and holly.

While there are some modern design elements, the makers endeavor to only use equipment that would have been found in colonial Virginia or have been able to be imported there from somewhere else. Both dry and fresh fruit is used, along with decorative fungi and herbs.

Now, there's a bit of a well known secret about Williamsburg's Christmas decorations: they're not actually colonial. At all. People have this idea that they're historically accurate because Williamsburg is generally very good at adhering to historical accuracy, but in reality, the most a family might decorate for Christmas in Virginia back in the colonial period was setting up a small display of holly or pine branches, and hanging some mistletoe the man of the house would have shot out of a tree. Literally, shot out of a tree with an actual rifle. That is how the colonial people do. Decorating inside churches could be a little more festive, but inside or outside the home itself, people really didn't go over the top, especially not in the days leading up to Christmas. During the Twelve Days of Christmas, people would be a little more festive, but still nowhere near the craze we've got today. This was also pretty localized to specific parts of America, because a lot of people in the colonial period still thought decorating or celebrating Christmas was a pagan tradition. New England was especially militant about this, even during and after the American Revolution. You could be fined for taking a day off of work or even making a mince pie on Christmas in some colonies!

The tradition of decorating the outside of the houses goes back to when Colonial Williamsburg was first opened as a tourist attraction. Apparently, people visiting during the holidays were disappointed at the lack of Christmas decorations, and so the directors decided to fudge history a bit to make the place look a little more seasonal during the holiday season. Inside the hotels and inns on property, they also introduce more modern decorations like Christmas trees and gingerbread houses. Williamsburg is also one of the places that claims to have hosted the very first American Christmas tree in 1844!

They had a couple other special events for the season, too, including several demonstrations of what a Christmas ball or get together might look like both for the upper class, and for their servants and slaves. My personal favorite seasonal activity we got to do was a late night walk around the property where we got to watch four different very well done vignettes discussing the different holiday practices that have happened in Williamsburg over the years. The first was from the perspective of a servant and a slave at the Governor's Palace in the 1760's, the second featured a young farmer-turned-soldier and his sister in 1776, the third told the story of the Christmas tree in 1844, and the last talked about more modern Williamsburg traditions that started in the 1930's and 40's, although the skit was set in 1944 - a special treat for me! Hilariously, the little girl in the 1940's skit totally reminded me and my mother of Molly.

Of course, we didn't just come here to look at the Christmas decorations. Although we didn't spend as much time exploring all the same historic locations, we did drop by some of the buildings we hadn't visited for a while, like the jail and the Capitol, where we had an especially great tour guide who led us around the building.

My dad also kep gleefully pointing out that this is where Felicity would have been tried and hung for stealing a horse if she'd been caught helping Penny escape/stealing her from Jiggy Nye. He's got a weird sense of humor.

We also stopped by some new spots like the Powell House to learn about food preparation and other fun shared by a colonial family during the holidays. This is apparently a newer experience that's trying to get younger kids interested in the museum, and featured activities like making a paper chain, a floral sachet, and playing with some familiar faces who seem to have been fazed out of the Williamsburg giftshop rotation.

Felicity actually shares a space with a much less well played with version of one of those dolls...

We couldn't not say hi to Posie while we were here.

Felicity has a sheep named Posie who is promptly never mentioned again after her birthday book.

And of course we had to stop by the Governor's Palace.

Here's Felicity exploring the grounds!

We even had time to make a detour to one of my favorite historical sights: Jamestown!

Fortunately, I won't be discussing the food customs of the settlers during the Starving Time, although I've written a couple papers about it!

But this wouldn't be a food blog if we just talked about the sights and sounds of Colonial Williamsburg. We all know you're here for the food!

We got to eat in three of the four historical taverns in Williamsburg: the King's Arms, Chowning's and Christiana Campbell's, and also picked up some goodies at the Raleigh Tavern bakery, which is a counter service restaurant where you can pick up things like sandwiches and soup for lunch, as well as baked goods. We started off at Chowning's for dinner. It's an interesting building because we know it was a tavern and was owned by a Josiah Chowning, but that's pretty much all we do know because the records associated with the family and the building were all lost in a fire.

They sell historically inspired rootbeer named after Chowning's all over the property, and I have to say, it's pretty delicious. Something about home brewed root beer with honey in it really tastes great to me, so I ordered it pretty much every time we went out to dinner. I ordered a beer brined half chicken and my mom got the Brunswick stew, which I've made before for this blog with Williamsburg's official printed recipe. She said she liked mine more because there was more chicken in it, and I have to admit, the soup looked kind of watery compared to the overloaded mess I made!

My dad got an extremely historically accurate flat bread. And by extremely, I really mean I was vaguely disappointed to find out pizza was an option on the menu when there are so many interesting period accurate dishes to try! Admittedly, it's not like I've been a super frequent visitor to Williamsburg, so I could be remembering this incorrectly, but I felt like there were more historical options in the past.

We didn't eat dinner at King's Arms, but we did have a holiday breakfast there! Felicity has some queen cake out in front of the building in the photo below, a tea cake I've been dying to make for the blog but haven't quite found the time to do just yet!

The breakfast also wasn't especially historically accurate, but I still enjoyed it! I got pecan and cinnamon French toast with breakfast sausages and apples, while my parents both got a country style breakfast with eggs, fried chicken, ham and potatoes. My personal favorite part of the meal was the little drink we got with our breakfast - raspberry sorbet floating in cranberry juice! It was super tasty and I happily finished off my dad's when he said he wasn't interested in having one.

We were only in Williamsburg for a few days. My job doesn't give me a ton of vacation time, and I'm trying to hoard as much of it as I can for other vacations, so this was just a three day weekend. On our last night, we went to Christiana Campbell's for dinner, the tavern that's best known for having good seafood options. I remember liking Shield's Tavern a lot the last time I was in Williamsburg, so I'm hesitant to say that Christiana Campbell's was my favorite, but it was certainly my favorite of the three we got to eat at on this trip, even if my mom was annoyed that we had to sit on the porch instead of in the building proper. She's never gotten to eat in the main dining room, and the porch is definitely a little cramped.

One of the reasons I like Christiana's the best is because you're brought out dinner rolls and sweet potato pecan muffins with some house made coleslaw to start, and then you're served spoonbread with dinner! I made spoonbread along with the Brunswick stew last year, and it was very tasty. The bread you get in the restaurant is exactly the same - warm and gooey and sweet without being cloying or tasting processed.

I didn't order anything especially authentic mostly because I wasn't in the mood for seafood, and the historically inspired pasta dish they serve made me feel sick the last time I had it, but both my parents ordered the seafood muddle and really, really enjoyed it. It's basically a soup with a bunch of shellfish, fish and sausage chopped up and cooked in it. I've actually considered making the seafood muddle before, but the timing didn't quite work out, so my parents' glowing review makes me definitely interested in revisiting it sometime. Maybe this summer!

My personal favorite stop on our trip was Christiana Campbell's for a Christmas tea! This technically happened before we ate dinner there, and we had to sit on the porch again, which just made my mom all the more disappointed when we were led in there for dinner that night. The first time I went to Williamsburg, they had a Felicity themed tea lesson at the same tavern, but I'll admit, I don't remember most of it. My clearest memory is that Miss Manderly yelled at me for saying things like "aye" and "tis", because "it makes you sound like a sailor", and I was kind of embarrassed and devastated because that's how the characters talked in the book, I was just trying to be accurate!

This time was a lot less awkward, although I was forced to do the minuet while doing the man's dance moves, because there weren't enough men to play the part. Although they didn't make my father dance, so I'm not sure why I ended up getting singled out.

We started the meal off with a toast using some sparkling cider. We were sitting at a table for four - which actually happened each time we were seated somewhere, which made finding a place to put Felicity safely out of the way of any food I was eating nice and easy for me! - and the waitress accidentally poured Felicity her own glass of cider!

We were given a diverse selection of tea and told we were to choose two bags in any combination we wanted. They were brewed properly in your own personal tea pot rather than in your cup, and the waitstaff came by to give you more hot water whenever you needed it. One refill of the pot worked out to be about two and a quarter cups of tea each, meaning four and a half total, and that is way too much tea for me in one sitting! Still, it was nice to be able to have options and experiment a little with a new flavor if you wanted it.

Being the good patriot I am, I selected herbal teas instead of black tea, which is what colonists who protested Britain's taxes on the colonies would have substituted if they didn't have coffee or chocolate available for a hot drink. This is a sort of obnoxious habit of mine that also dates back to my childhood years of hero worshiping Felicity, and I do it when I got to American Girl Place for tea, too, although I usually go for the hot chocolate there.

Tea sandwiches were the first substantial goodies you were delivered. There was a ham and mustard sandwich on a sweet potato biscuit, a croissant with turkey and cranberry, a tomato stuffed with cream cheese and herbs, and a salmon crostini. They were all very tasty, although the croissant was on the large side for a tea sandwich. I didn't really mind, honestly, because tea can sometimes mean not enough food to justify going out to lunch, but also not enough food to actually qualify as lunch, and this kind of helped pad it out for me.

I honestly don't remember much about the tea we did with Miss Manderly in terms of what was actually served for food, and I wish I did. It would have been cool to compare the menus!

The next course was actually probably my favorite of the day, which probably says more about how much I enjoy things like muffins, cake and scones more than the quality of the other courses, because it really was all quite good! The only truly historical thing here was the queen's cake, but the cranberry scones and the cinnamon apple muffins aren't entirely far off, and this felt a little more truly authentic to me.

This was likely also aided by the fact that we got to learn a little about Christmas songs during the period, and had to shake these bells along in time with a pretty repetitive but kind of kitschy song about farm animals doing all the farm chores on Christmas day. They did a nice job of discussing some historical information about holiday customs without being utterly distracting or annoying, which definitely made the tea feel more specifically holiday themed, because the food itself didn't feel especially seasonal. Not that I'm really complaining! It was all tasty anyway.

We finished the meal off with dessert, which included a slice of the tiniest yule log I've ever seen, a sugar cookie and a tiny pumpkin tart, which was basically a bitty pumpkin pie. Yum!

Overall, while I would have enjoyed having a couple more historical options to enjoy while we were away, I do understand how authentically historical dishes can be a bit of a hard sell for people, especially when you're living in a society that has a much better understanding of nutritional and dietary needs! I also certainly get how certain dishes can be a bit of a hard sell to people - chicken pudding doesn't really sound appealing to most modern audiences, even if you explain it a little to them first. I've been trying to get my family excited about doing something like that for a while now.

Still, we don't really have any places like this close to where I live, and it's always nice to visit Williamsburg. I always learn something new while I'm down there - for example, I previously had no idea that a country custom for celebrating Christmas was to fire your gun into the air and wait for your neighbors to shoot you a reply - and even if the decorations aren't entirely historically accurate, they were really pretty and cool to see in person. I really can't get over how much time people must spend making something that generally has to get tossed out by the end of the season because you're using perishables like fruit to make them - I know I'd have a really hard time throwing something I spent hours laboring over in the garbage when it started looking a little mangy! Most of all, it was fun to do something a little different for the holiday season with my parents and get a peek into the past while we did it. That's definitely my kind of vacation!

And I don't care how historically accurate these things were, I am definitely making them one day!


  1. Ohhhh! I am so jealous! My husband and I are going this summer and I am so excited! I too have wanted to go since I was little. It is good to hear that you got such positive reactions from people about bringing Felicity because mine is totally coming with me too. Did you happen to stay in one of the historic houses? Thats what we are planning on doing and I wonder what its like! :)

    1. I didn't this time, but I did last time my mom and I went! That was two years ago, and we stayed in a very tiny room in the Market Square Tavern building. It was pretty cool because we were right next to the Magazine and could see people mustering and drilling from our window, but it didn't have wifi and was a tiny bit cramped without much historical detailing on the inside. I'm not sure if this was because it was we were staying in a cheaper house or what though, and I've got nothing to compare it to, so I don't know if that's every property or just the room we stayed in. It was really nice to be right in the middle of things, though, and I definitely missed having a short short walk back to the hotel this time around! So I definitely think it's fun so long as you don't go in expecting to be living in an actual colonial house decor wise.

  2. This is so beautiful! Thanks for sharing your wonderful visit to Colonial Williamsburg. Felicity looks adorable and I learned so much, great post!

    1. Thanks very much! We had a very nice time. :)

  3. Thanks for a wonderful trip! I have been wanting to see Williamsburg at Christmas since I was a little girl. I am very grateful that I was able to experience it with you and Felicity (dad, too!)

    1. I'm very grateful too! I really had a good time, even if we found out that all of the decorations are fakers!

  4. It sounds like you had a fun trip. My best friend Charlie is from Williamsburg, and her dad teaches at William & Mary and digs at Jamestown.

    (And this is Robin instead of Audra writing now -- I also teach at William & Mary, so you were just down the road from my office! One of the perks of being on the faculty at W&M is that we get free membership to the Revolutionary City. I love to go down to Raleigh Tavern bakery when it's cold for some hot cider and a ginger cake before I head home. :) )

    1. I AM LITERALLY SO JEALOUS RIGHT NOW (excuse my capslock, I get excited about Jamestown very easily) although I'm pretty sure any academic/museum career I eventually get into will probably skew very heavily towards WWII, I would *love* to dig at Jamestown or work at William & Mary. You guys have a beautiful campus and are near some of the coolest places in the US! And that sounds like the perfect snack for the way home, I wish our cafeteria had hot cider.