Butcher, baker and history buff Justin Cherry built himself a circa-18th century oven made of clay, based on the descriptions he read of the ovens used by the Salzburgers of Georgia. The best bakers in the Colonies, he says. "They had the first grist mill in Georgia in the 1740s."
As he researched the ovens, he says he just wanted to learn more and more.
Once built, the oven became a side business called Half Crown Bakehouse. The chef, who still works at Husk, specializes in bread but also does Colonial-era food. "I do dishes that people forgot about or don't even know about from the 18th century," he says. Cherry expects this will become his full-time job very soon.
He just returned from an 18th Century Market Fair at Fort Frederick in Maryland where he reenacts Colonial-era baking techniques. "I'm planning to do about four or five of these reenactment festivals a year," he says.
But his biggest development has been receiving a Mount Vernon Fellowship that will allow him to spend a month at George Washington's homestead near D.C. and study the impact Mount Vernon had on 18th century foodways.
"Nobody had done food," he says about past fellowship research projects, so he submitted his application along with recommendations from David Shields, a professor at USC, and Glenn Roberts, the operator of Anson Mills. Both men are involved in the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which works to find, preserve and resurrect heirloom grains. (Full disclosure: I help organize the annual meetings for the nonprofit foundation). In recent years they have been spreading the seeds of Scot's Bere, an ancient barley that once grew all over America but went extinct here in the 19th and 20th centuries when faster growing barleys took over. It has continued to grow in Scotland on the Orkney Islands.
"It's one of the outstanding landrace grains in whiskey and beer," says Roberts. "It was brought to the East Coast in the Colonial era and then Hudson Bay took it out to the Pacific Northwest. You can find it in Australia too."
Cherry was given some Scot's Bere by Roberts to experiment with and plans to make skillet bread for the CGRF's meeting this Friday.
"Scot's Bere Barley is what I'm looking for," says Cherry, who expects to find a lot of information next spring when he spends time at Mount Vernon. He'll have access to all the documentation and archives, including voluminous correspondence. "After his brother Lawrence died and he got Mount Vernon and up until his death, [George Washington] was either at war or the president," says Cherry. "The agricultural journals are huge with him writing back and forth. It's a very good source of what they were doing."
Mount Vernon was one of the largest distilleries of the time. In 1799, the distillery sold and traded more than 10,000 barrels of whiskey. Cherry thinks the distillery, which has been rebuilt and makes spirits to this day, will be a key to finding the types of rye and grains that were grown and used in the colonies at the time. Roberts says he knows that Cherry will find evidence of Scot's Bere Barley based on the documents that other scholars have already delved into at the Library of Congress.