Flavor Of The Past: 19th Century Kitchens

This is Part 2 of 2, Flavor of the Past: A Trip To Wilmington, NC.
Did you miss Part 1? Click HERE to catch up. To make sure you don't miss a thing, sign up for email updates! Or add Nik Snacks to your RSS reader

The Flavor of the Past tour spanned from the late 1800s all the way to the 1940s, during WWII. Wilmington, North Carolina was indeed a boom town during boom times. It sits at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in the coastal plains region of North Carolina. It was the largest city in North Carolina until Charlotte took over in 1910. Being a port city, trading of goods and people took place here. Affluent and well-educated merchants, architects, engineers, and laborers came here from the North to prosper.

The tour visited a few of the well-preserved homes of affluent and influential families.

I promise not to make this a history lesson. I learned and experienced so much on this trip, that I want to share as much as possible without making you feel like you're reading an essay.

The first kitchen was at the Bellamy Mansion. Bellamy was a physician by trade but made most of his money on a plantation in Columbus County, harvesting naval stores. As any 5th or 8th grader in North Carolina knows: tar, pitch, and turpentine. These materials were used to make ships in the harbor of Wilmington. There was a lot of money made in the naval stores and the long and loblolly pines cut down to make the ships.

It's still a sensitive subject, but Wilmington was built on the backs of African slaves and the occasional indentured servant. As politically correct as I can be, I'll refer to my ancestors as: African-American artisans instead.

The African-American artisans ran the households of the rich. For instance, Sarah, the Bellamy's cook was the "CEO" of the household, overseeing all of the servants and preparing the meals.

The Bellamy kitchen is located in the bottom of the house, where our basements would be today. There was no air-conditioning and the only method of ventilation was to open a window. Most kitchens were not housed inside. Most were in a separate shed or covered structure in the back yard of the home. To have an indoor kitchen (much like indoor plumbing) was truly a sign of affluence. There was an indoor stove, cabinets, a wooden table, sideboard, and plenty of room in this kitchen. It's amazing to know that food was prepared in there over 150 years ago.

Most of the kitchenware seen here is as old as this home. The kitchen was outfitted with the grandest and most expensive cookware. I would have taken more pictures of the kitchen, but it was incredibly dark in there. Also, there was a man in my way who refused to move. Even after I flashed my little press pass. Maybe he thought I was an indentured servant.

This is the Bellamy dining room. Located off to the side of the kitchen and ironing room, it is set for an every day meal. I felt like I was at my own home when I stepped into this room. The furniture is not original to the house, but pieces from the period that the house was built. When the house was built, the Bellamy's threw a grandiose party inviting the who's who of Wilmington. Two weeks later, the Civil War broke out and the house was abandoned.

Original to the Bellamy dining room

These tools were found in the kitchen of the William J. Price house. From top to bottom: a wooden spoon (I think it might be anachronistic in this application), a rolling pin or stir-stick, a whisk, a brush, a two-pronged stick used as a fork or set of tongs.

Don't think I forgot to add some food. A plate of cracklings. Also known as pork rinds, chicharrones, or tsitsarones. Chunks of cured pork skins are deep-fried and rendered into curls. Cracklings are used to season collard greens, cornbread, or just eaten as a snack. My grandmother would make cracklin' cornbread...

This is sugar. It was packaged in brown paper and special tongs were used to chip away at the cone. Sugar was expensive, so people usually sweetened things with the less refined molasses.

This has nothing to do with a kitchen, but I thought it was so cool, I couldn't help but share it. This is one of the 15 or so fireplaces in the Bellamy mansion. It's painted black, to cover the soot produced when in use. When not in use mirrored covers were put over the opening. Why mirrors? Well, the roads and walkways weren't paved then and there was lots of mud and soot about. The mirrored covers let ladies look at the hem of their dresses to ensure they were clean. That's me ensuring my jeans were clean. Well, at least my feet.

This chair was hard to capture with my camera. It's a cooking chair for African-American artisans, indentured servants, slaves...whoever...to cook in front of the hearth. The chair is low to the ground (no more than 7 or 8 inches) and enabled the cook to lean forward so as not to wear out the back muscles too much. The front legs are lower than the back.

Not used in affluent houses like the Bellamy's and the Price's this chair was just an example of how "the other side" lived.

A modern view of the port in Wilmington. These days, more movies and television shows are made in Wilmington than anything nautical. It's a beautiful coastal city, rich with heritage and burgeoning prospects for the future.

Like this post?

About the author

Nikki Miller-Ka

Nikki Miller-Ka

Ms. Miller-Ka is a classically trained chef with a BA in English from East Carolina University and a Culinary Arts Associate Degree from Le Cordon Bleu-Miami.

Formerly, she’s worked as a researcher, an editorial assistant, reporter and guest blogger for various publications and outlets in the Southeast. She has also worked as a catering chef, a pastry chef, a butcher, a baker, and a biscuit-maker. Presently, she is a food editor, freelance food writer, and a tour guide for Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours.

Leave a reply

  1. Thanks for sharing that. It's obvious that you really enjoyed learning this stuff (you remind me of a kid coming home from school all excited and saying, "Guess what I learned today") and I enjoyed learning it from you. It sounds like a really enjoyable and educational tour.

  2. Thanks, Rachel! I just barely scraped the tip of the iceberg, all of the information I learned. I don't live in Wilmington, but I wish that I did, just because of this little tour.

  3. What a great piece Nikki! Thanks for sharing your adventures with us!

  4. There weren't enough black folk in that kitchen to be historically accurate. You know that old white bitch ain't touch a dish! (Those "colonial" reenactment places give me the White Guilt Creepies)

  5. I kind of like pork rinds. I didn't want to admit it, but I do. I've had them many, many times.

  6. I'm really digging your trip, Nikki. I'm a big history buff, which is part of the reason I like the smaller southern cities so much, the architecture and everything is so well preserved and everything.

    You mean to tell me that house was only finished and used to two weeks? That's a heartbreaker.

    And don't worry, we'll do Wilmington up together, beaches are our friends :)

  7. I've been reading your blog the past few weeks and enjoying it - especially this post! I am in the Triad too and grew up in NC.


  8. Great photos Nikki. You've outdone yourself. I love historical places and customs. It helps me appreciate our life more. Thanks for the great post.

  9. Such a history lesson...and you know, those pics are hot!

  10. jenn: Thanks! I hope to embark upon many more adventures in the near future. I really did have a blast.

    heather: the lady who gave the presentation in the Bellamy mansion was black. OMG! I forgot to mention: there were two black women sitting on the back porch of this place (the bellamy mansion) singing Negro spirituals, loudly, and there was a watermelon and a bag of peanuts between them. I vascillated over taking their picture but I decided to "leave out that part of history." It really was a bit degrading. I mean, a watermelon???

    emiline: I can't say I like pork rinds. I think they're a little too crispy and dry for me. But I'll eat a fresh cracklin' in a piece of cornbread any day!

    Adam: I think the family came back after the war, but nobody really said. There was major rconstruction on the house and one of the masonry guys who plastered the place was an ancestor of someone who worked in the house...something like that...I left that part out because I was iffy on the details.

    And yes, beaches ARE our friends :)

    emily: thanks for making yourself known! I'm glad you like my place :)

    teresa: I love history, too. I am truly amazed by things from the past that are still here. I was telling someone last night that when I went to the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, I was touching all of the places on the statues where he'd written his name. I was moved to tears.

    D: Thanks, man! I need a new camera though. But we're not paying $799, right?

  11. I loved reading this series, it is so interesting. I know where I'm visiting when I finally get to cross the pond!

  12. Well, watermelon seeds were brought to North America by African slaves. If it weren't for them, we probably wouldn't even have it here! It's because of white racism (and classism) that the association between black people and watermelon is construed as degrading. Not that you need me to tell you that. It's weird, okra and sweet potatoes don't have the same stigma.

    This month's Saveur Magazine has a really great article (the whole issue, actually) about watermelon and the ways people eat it all over he world.

  13. heather: I think the minstrel show jokes started the watermelon and fried chicken thing. I really don't like watermelon. Or canteloupe. I love a good honeydew though.

    Next time I go to the grocery, I'll read it when I'm in line.

  14. fascinating. i love historical cooking

  15. Those photos are so excellent. Keep up the good work and thank you for sharing.


Post a Comment

Thank you for coming by! Don't make this visit your last!