Collectors’ Day 2019 – Dining In Decadence: Culinary Culture in Early America

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My name is Joseph Sherren, I am the collections manager at Montpelier Historic Site in Laurel. I was the recipient of the first Glenn Harwood Memorial Scholarship, a scholarship for a young scholar to attend the Collector’s Day program. I am trained in art history and have conducted research on furnishings and furniture in historic houses. As a collections manager, I conduct and also facilitate research for the interpretation of Montpelier but my knowledge doesn’t extend to the social customs of the time. So this program was an incredible opportunity for me.

I am not planning on recounting the entire program, there is no way I would be able to do the research and the presenter’s justice. Each part of the event was engaging and informative beginning with Rachel Lovett’s tour of the house through the lens of dining- both informal and very formal. This was followed by food historian Joyce White’s presentation on interpreting late-Georgian table for historic house museums and Dr. Janine Skerry’s excellent discussion of the evolution of dining in America and Great Britain. The night was capped off by an opportunity to try some of the treats Joyce White made especially for attendees and a curated tasting of wines available during the early 19th Century.

One of the most significant points I took away from every presenter at the program is the ubiquity of resources available at the time. These include almanacs, commonplace books (household recipes collected by the lady of the house), and published handbooks that incorporate widespread recipes like Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery and Robert Roberts’s House Servant’s Directory. These publications were staples in the household. Aside from recipes, these books outlined the duties for roles in the household- roles often held by enslaved laborers- and recounted daily tasks.

Joyce’s work is particularly interesting because she goes beyond traditional research. She speaks from a place of practical experience as part of her work is recreating historic recipes and sometimes unleashing them on unsuspecting attendees. Fortunately, we were spared some of the more adventurous recipes including a poultry jelly she discussed. One of the most interesting parts she discussed was the widespread belief in Galenic Dining. This is the belief that you can dine to a better body, that food and drink can bring you back to harmony and a good host desires to provide a multitude of options for their guest’s humoral needs.

One of the most enriching and engaging parts of the night included the presentation by Dr. Janine Skerry, senior curator of metals at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. During Dr. Skerry’s talk, she outlined a number of points when it came to the entertainment and dining culture in America after the Revolutionary War. She addressed the service styles for meals from dining in the Italian, the French, and later the Russian. French style dining was among the most common for American dining and one of its focuses was on the look and presentation. Emphasis being taken away from the flavor of the food and placed on the presentation. She also pointed out that in many ways, the American table was remarked on for its abundance of food and the generosity of its hosts.

So with that, I’d like to thank the Hammond-Harwood House Museum for organizing a wonderful program for many to enjoy. And give a special thanks to Fran Harwood who established the Glenn Harwood Memorial Scholarship.


Joseph Sherren is the Collections Manager at Montpelier Historic Site, a part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Prince George’s County. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Master’s in Art History from George Mason University. During his Master’s studies, his research on Ottoman Homosocial Spaces was included in the Art History Graduate Research Symposium publication and he was the recipient of the 2015- 2016 Graduate Outstanding Scholarly Achievement in Art History Award. He has been in the museum field for 5 years working in education, research, and collections. He began as a gallery guide and researcher at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC and in his last semester of graduate studies volunteered as a researcher and collections intern with Historic Annapolis. As the collections manager for Montpelier Historic Site, he is responsible for the long-term preservation and care of the house and furnishings. In addition to this, he contributes to the research and helps to guide the interpretation of the historical property and grounds.

Posted on Nov 22, 2019 in by Hammond-Harwood House



Hammond-Harwood House

The mission of the Hammond-Harwood House Association is to preserve, for public education and enjoyment, the architecturally significant Hammond-Harwood House museum and its collection of fine and decorative arts.
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