The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

November 4, 2012

Thanksgiving at the Cabin

A look back at cooks of yesteryear


WESTVILLE — Tucked away in a remote corner of Forest Glen County Preserve east of Westville stands the Pioneer Homestead.

Today, anywhere from 100 to 300 visitors will make the trek down the leaf-encrusted foot path to a one-room cabin constructed of logs of a yellow poplar, which is a tree native to the area.

During the county preserve’s annual Thanksgiving at the Cabin, visitors not only learn what the area’s first settlers might have eaten and how they cooked it over an open fire, but they also get to sample delicacies made from ingredients that are locally grown and gathered.

Susan Biggs-Warner, a historic interpreter with the Vermilion County Conservation District, has been involved with the cooking demonstration since it started a year or two after the cabin was built in the mid-1980s.

When Thanksgiving at the Cabin began 25 years ago or so, the public was invited to watch as the food was prepared and cooked over an open fire, but it was the conservation district staff who enjoyed the meal.

For a few years, the Revolutionary War re-enactors also helped prepare the meal that they then shared with the conservation district employees.

In recent years, Civil War re-enactor Robert Hale from the Chrisman/Paris area and Ridge Farm librarian Lisa Davis join Biggs-Warner and conservation district program secretary Amy Steeples in dressing up in period costumes and cooking over an open fire.

This year, Thanksgiving at the Cabin is a stop on the Georgetown Holiday Gathering map.

While some visitors come prepared to eat a full meal — and in the past some even have brought their own table service — Biggs-Warner emphasized that the event is a cooking demonstration during which samples are served.

“Visitors will be able to sample food inside the cabin and outdoors,” she said.

“They don’t eat a Thanksgiving dinner. As food is ready, they receive samples.

“We just give away samples and recipes so we can keep it free for the public.”

Weeks of preparation

Biggs-Warner begins preparing for the event weeks in advance. She pores over cooking magazines for new recipes she can adapt but also makes sure she includes some old favorites.

“I go through my old recipes and see what has been popular in the past,” she said.

“I start with a big list of ideas and whittle it down.

“They’re not old recipes, but they use local, native or old-fashioned ingredients,” she said. “We change it up every year. We always have two or three recipes that are different each year.”

Although it might not be authentic early American fare, Biggs-Warner makes sure the food incorporates ingredients that the area’s settlers would have used, such as persimmons, black walnuts, white walnuts, butternut, American chestnut, sweet corn, wild mushrooms and butternut squash.

“Pioneers in this area would have raised hogs rather than cattle,” she added.

Because the food is cooked over an open fire, the weather also is a factor in what’s on the menu and how much food will be prepared.

“I’ve been keeping notes the last eight or nine years about how the weather was that day and how many people showed up,” she said.

“If it’s a cold, blustery day, we might get 100 people, but if it’s a beautiful weekend, we could get 250 to 300 people.”

Next, Biggs-Warner gathers the ingredients she needs — whether it’s picking persimmons, walnuts, sassafras and herbs grown at Forest Glen or going to the Covered Bridge Festival to purchase American chestnuts.

This year, however, Mother Nature has had a say in what’s on the menu.

“I don’t know if I’ll have enough persimmons this year to make anything,” Biggs-Warner lamented earlier this week.

“The man at the Covered Bridge Festival didn’t have any American chestnuts because of the freeze earlier this year,” she said, “and I might have to cook a venison rump instead of another cut of meat depending on what’s available.

“Sometimes you have to improvise,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to decide what’s going to be on the menu because I have a lot of ideas.”

Two items, however, usually find their way to the menu every year — a dessert sweetened with maple syrup tapped from the trees at Forest Glen and whole cranberries.

“We use the end syrup, which is the darker syrup,” she said, “and we always try to cook whole cranberries, which aren’t native to this area, but they’re something a lot of people have never had.”

Taste of history

Biggs-Warner said part of the fun of Thanksgiving at the Cabin is allowing people to taste new delicacies.

“We have people who tell us they don’t like something, but when they try it, they change their mind,” she said.

The event is also a lesson in cooking and history.

Hale, who makes the ever-popular Dutch oven yeast bread, started the fires going today at 8:30 or 9 a.m.

Steeples, who has been one of the cooking demonstrators for the last 15 years, said she enjoys preparing the food in cast iron Dutch ovens over an open fire and even in the fireplace inside the cabin.

“We’ll hang little pots over the fire,” she said as she pulled out a hinged iron bracket that swings in and out of the fireplace and from which pots and kettle hang over the fire.

Biggs-Warner added, “One thing we do to cheat is I might have all the dry and liquid ingredients measured out ahead of time, because we’re busy talking to people and we want them to ask us questions.”

Thanksgiving at the Cabin does have quite a following.

“Every year we’ll have people call to make reservations,” Biggs-Warner chuckled because reservations aren’t needed or taken.

“Some people come right at 1 o’clock with their lawn chairs and stay for the whole time,” she said. “They won’t be able to get a full meal, but we want them to enjoy the samples.”

Biggs-Warner and Steeples said they appreciate the support they receive every year from the community.

“The people who come out to this are really loyal,” Biggs-Warner said. “We love that people come out and watch us and love it.”

What’s on the menu

The dishes being sampled between 1 and 4 p.m. today at the Pioneer Homestead in Forest Glen County Preserve, east of Westville, are:

Minestrone soup

Corn fritters

Dutch oven yeast bread

Applewood bacon venison loin

Garlic rosemary rump roast

Roasted fingerling potatoes

Maple sweet potatoes with black walnuts

Stuffed pumpkins “en earth”