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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Tea & mystery at Living History Farms

Living History Farms (LHF) covers 300 years of Iowa commerce: an Ioway Indian farm; an oxen-powered 1850 farmstead; a horse-powered 1900 farm; and an 1875 Iowa town. Until recently, farming was all about growing good things to eat, so some LHF lessons are hand-to-mouth exercises. At a Victorian tea in Flynn House, I discovered one must earn his food in the historically correct manner, even though today’s visitors are allowed to cut some corners. My reservation was made a week in advance. (In the last quarter of the 19th century, tea invitations would have been sent at least six months ahead and RSVPs were returned within 10 days.) Nor was I required to coordinate my outfit with the definitive Victorian hair color guidebook. That authority dictated that only blondes could wear pastels.

Assuming that clueless visitors would forget to bring fans to a November tea, LHF hostesses provided those compulsory accessories — complimentary wooden fans, marinated in the scent of aging spinsters from the era before deodorant was invented. Because today’s tea guests are also ignorant about “the language of fan, handkerchief and glove gestures,” we were escorted to the parlor for lessons in “suggestive flirtation” that were as earnest as the longing in the hearts of Jane Austin’s heroines. I learned, for instance, that if a lady draws her hanky across her lips while looking at you, she wants you, but if she nibbles on the tips of her gloves, she wants you to take a hike. If a girl pairs white gardenias with red roses in her “tussy mussy” (hand-held bouquet), she’s hot to trot, but one holding a single yellow carnation has learned that her man is a lying, cheating rake. Hostesses also instructed us on petticoat and corset history. (LHF docents actually participated in Mayo Clinic research on the delicate relationship between corsets and breath.) I was also taught how to use a kerosene lamp as a curling iron and that George Washington used the same Aqua de Florida cologne that LHF provides for gentleman callers today.

Eventually, afternoon tea was served in the dining room. (I noted that morning tea would have been served in the parlor, extending the parlor games.) A first course included finger sandwiches of sliced apples with turkey, chicken salad and dill with cucumbers. A second course included a buttery scone with cranberry and citrus flavors, plus a fresh lemon curd. A third course, made from recipes in an 1874 cookbook, included lemon petit fours, a pecan tart, pumpkin cakes, sugar cookies and a “coconut caramel,” which would more accurately be called a “chocolate coconut truffle” today. Darjeeling tea, nuts and bonbons were also served. If your appetite is unhindered by the wearing of a corset, you will probably still be waiting for more food.

No one ever leaves one of LHF’s historic dinners hungry. Those begin with horse-drawn hayrides to lantern-lit historic farmhouses. Menus (chosen by the first party to make a reservation) for either an 1875 or 1900 style dinner are completely prepared in historic manner, meaning on a wood burning stoves, over an open fire. At a recent 1900 style dinner, spiced baked beef, fabulous scalloped tomatoes (with a crumb topping of onions, cheese, garlic and bread), green beans, caramelized carrots and chocolate cake were served with two other items that taught the most valuable history lesson of all — to respect the wisdom of our ancestors. LHF’s yeast rolls are simple, food epiphanies, especially with freshly churned better and home made preserves. LHF’s lard crust, pear pie has deservingly become a word-of-mouth Iowa food legend. Pie this good probably explains why Victorian men endured all the parlor games that Victorian women made them play.

Side Dishes
Drake’s Madrigal Dinners (strolling minstrels, jugglers, dancers and chorus) will be Sat., Dec. 6, and Sun., Dec. 7, at Olmsted Center. $50, reservations required 271-3841... Chef Scott Stroud is on a four month sabbatical from Dos Rios, to open a Florida restaurant. CVLiving History Farms, 11121 Hickman Rd., Urbandale, 278-5286. Christmas tea: Dec. 5-10, 15-22, $30, reservations required. Historic Dinners: Tues. - Sun. 6:30 p.m.; Sat. and by request, 1:30 p.m., $50, reservations required.

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