Using cookbooks from 1796-1844 as reference, the Wade House’s cooking classes show attendees how to serve up dinners like the olden days.
Just as it did in 1850, a spire of wood smoke rising into the cold blue sky above the Old Wade House in Greenbush meant kettles were bubbling and travelers were welcome.
The Old Wade House, a property of the Wisconsin Historical Society, has restarted its Hearthside Dinner events, after a pause for the pandemic. Instead of bumping along the old Plank Road by stagecoach, today’s travelers arrived by car from Kenosha, Cambridge, and Green Bay to learn how to cook like the pioneers.
“We’re so happy to welcome people back to the Wade House and to our new menus,’’ said Stephanie Vahsholtz, events coordinator for the WHS.
The mid-day dinners have been a thing at the Old Wade House for at least 30 years. Culinary historian Susan Phelps, who selects the recipes from cookbooks published in 1796 and 1844, has created three new menus of period dishes.
The Yankee menu, with Yankee pot roast and apple pan dowdy, honors the Wades, who came from Massachusetts and built their inn in the Greek Revival style popular in New England. The German menu, with sauerbraten and spaetzle, honors the Germans who followed soon after the Yankees.
Phelps said she rejected foods that take too long to cook or contain authentic ingredients—think eels, calf brains, and tongue—that would have been familiar to the pioneers but not so appetizing today.
Today the diners would be cooking their own supper from a Wisconsin Winter menu, which featured foods that would last in the larder long after the Wisconsin growing season ended. The menu included wild rice soup, pork ragout, maple-glazed sweet potatoes, buttermilk biscuits, baked macaroni and cheese, garlic beans, applesauce with lemon and nutmeg, and cranberry apple cobbler.
RELATED: 7 Iconic Wisconsin Church Supper Foods, From Lutefisk to Pierogies
Diners met up in the old tavern room to get their assignments. Everything is cooked with the tools and methods available on the Wisconsin frontier of 170 years ago. The sweet potatoes were roasted in dutch ovens with coals placed on the lid, the macaroni had to be boiled in a kettle hanging from a crane over an open flame. And that flame had to be fed by hauling wood—many armloads of wood—into the inn.
“The main thing is keeping the fire hot,’’ Phelps said, “and it’s amazing how much wood it takes.”
Team Macaroni would learn this the hard way, as would Team Ragout. Team Sweet Potato learned a different lesson: Hearth-roasted potatoes will burn your fingers when you’re peeling them. And even Team Coffee didn’t have it easy: The beans had to be cranked through a hand-operated mill several times, then boiled with egg whites and shells, as specified in “The Young Housekeeper’s Friend,’’ a guide from 1859.
The kitchen skills of the diners varied.
“We’ve had four men staring at an onion who didn’t know how to chop it,’’ said Phelps. “And we’ve also had a group of restaurant people who got everything done very quickly and it was all delicious.”
Once the biscuits were baking in the wood stove and the tables were set, the diners had a glass of wine as Phelps led a tour of the 32-room inn.
Sylvanus and Betsey Wade arrived at this spot in the forested northern Kettle Moraine in 1844, in a covered wagon with nine children ranging in age from 18 months to 20 years. Wade picked a location for his log cabin where the footpath crossed the Mullet River. Even more importantly, he chose a spot exactly halfway between Sheboygan, where the boatloads of immigrants arrived, and Fond du Lac to the west.
Within a few years, the footpath became the Plank Road. And there the Wade family built a three-story inn, strategically located, like a McDonald’s on an interstate exit, where stagecoaches would change out their horses halfway through the 11-hour trip.
“The beauty of Mr. Wade picking this location is because he knew travelers could get here by noon,’’ Phelps said.
Betsey Wade, along with her seven daughters and a hired girl, would have a hearty dinner available for 10 cents a plate. Phelps said Wade had a reputation as a good cook, and would feed as many as 40 diners during the mid-day meal.
But alas, the heyday of the Wade House lasted only a decade. While the Wades were certain the railroad would come through, it instead bypassed his village of Greenbush and went through rival Glenbeulah, a few miles to the north. The travelers followed, and the Wade House became a boarding house. By the mid-20th century, it was dilapidated. Philanthropist Ruth DeYoung Kohler purchased it, restored it, and donated it to the historical society in 1953.
The tour complete and dinner ready, the 19 diners gathered around the table, chatting happily about the food they made and their missteps along the way. For many, it was their first time dining with strangers since the pandemic.
“The camaraderie is always great,’’ said Vahsholtz, who noted there are a few openings left for dinners March 19, April 9, April 30, and Nov. 12. “We don’t do it when we’re open to the public, so [the dinners] are in the off-season and we usually have a waiting list.”
People can reserve a spot at the Old Wade House here.