I suppose all of us who have taken up the exploration of food, regional cooking, and culinary history can point to individuals in their lives who helped us achieve our epiphany. In my case it was a relative I never met, but whom I got know vicariously through my grandmother. I am speaking here of her mother, my great-grandmother Esther Hannum Hickman, who during her lifetime was generally known as the pickle queen of Chester County. A demure and reticent Quaker, Esther never enjoyed the limelight, yet her sharp intellect and perfectionist approach to cookery won her many accolades – not to mention a steady income from the pickles she sold through her husband’s pork business William E. Hickman and Son. She called it “pin money” but the cash gave her a front seat at Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia where she acquired many beautiful antiques.
I always wondered how she managed this, having grown up on a Chester County farm which is now the Galer Estate Vineyard and Winery on Folly Hill Road near Longwood Gardens at Kennett Square. It all fell into place when a cousin on the Hickman side brought a photograph to the house and asked to have it identified. Well there she is: Esther Hannum (not yet married), third from the left in the back row pictured in a tent with her 1884-1885 class in Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cooking School — Mrs. Rorer is the woman in the middle with the gold chain (Refer to Figure 1). The class was attending the State Fair in Fairmount Park (West) where Mrs. Rorer did some public cooking demonstrations. So it was Esther’s meticulous training for a year with Mrs. Rorer that honed her legendary skills in cookery. This would also explain her penchant for béchamel and home-made mayonnaise.
Esther left many manuscript cookbooks including one devoted entirely to her pickling recipes. Since my grandmother grew up as a kitchen trainee in Esther’s world of pickles, my link to this family tradition came full circle when my grandmother began to teach me the secrets of Esther’s “touch.” The spark was lit and with my grandfather’s seed collection supplying an amazing array of heirloom vegetables with which to test out Esther’s recipes, my life gradually moved from architecture (my university training) to food.
Finally, another revelation came to light which reveals a great deal about Esther and her classic sense of “finishing touch.” My Hickman cousins related that when their father (Esther’s son) moved from the farm, they took with them the old cook stove that had been the center of Esther’s world. Cast in Reading, Pennsylvania at the Mt. Penn Stove Works, it was none other than a “Penn Esther,” one of the best of the old iron cook stoves made in our region. Figure 2 is a picture of the stove taken from the handbook that came with it when Esther’s husband bought it. I cannot imagine that it was easy to cook on that old monster: no thermometer, no timers, no heat control except the amount of coal that was fed into it. Those technical challenges should remind us that traditional training like Esther’s also required an athletic amount of energy to turn out food worthy of memory.
If you have enjoyed this blog about an important food memory, perhaps in your own life you have experienced similar thoughts about the Pennsylvania food culture in which you grew up. We invite our readers all across the state to submit their food memories. We will edit the best and publish them online. All food memories will be archived at Kutztown University for future generations to read and understand, so make your food memories as detailed as possible: this is living history at its best. Refer to our folk cultural questionnaire on this website, located on the Food Survey page.