Tour of a Witch’s Garden

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The Mulford Farmhouse in East Hampton, NY, is described on multiple websites as “one of America’s most significant English colonial farmsteads.” Being a bit of an early colonial history aficionado, I eagerly searched online for what traits made this farmhouse so ‘significant’ – maybe it housed a legendary colonial figure, or stood on the site of some crucial battlefield – and found…not much.

Mulford Farmhouse, you tease. Of course we had to go check it out.

We ended up getting a tour from an enthusiastic woman, a self-confessed colonial re-enactor whose reenactments had crossed from her work life into her home life – she described how her husband had built a bed with straw bedding and rope slats, as well as a full-on 18th century fireplace in which she made a turkey that she brined, soaked in alcohol, stuffed, and cooked over the course of four days.

As an added bonus to our tour, we received a human rights lecture and other political statements, but the real highlight was our tour of Rachel’s Garden, an herb garden where familiar herbs took on significant and mystical meaning. They could reveal to you your true love, they could save you from smallpox, they could cure the common cold.

By the end of the tour, I almost believed what she had said, not only about the extraordinary healing powers of herbs, but also about the completeness of colonial life. She gushed about her four-day turkey as the most flavorful, most tender turkey she had ever had and recounted how fermented food had saved Civil War soldiers from disease. She wondered out loud whether our diet and lifestyle today was missing something, if we had lost something crucial along the way.

And while I don’t condone a return to the colonial way of life – after all, the Mulfords owned slaves and women were treated as witches, or worse, property – I do wonder about how different, and simpler life was back then when it seemed that good things would happen if you believed hard enough.

We now live in an age where we don’t even know where most of our food comes from (though that’s slowly changing) and yet we know the contradicting statements our politicians have made, we know about conflicts in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It’s difficult to imagine a time when people had such an intimate relationship with food that they believed it held supernatural powers.

So maybe I still don’t know what makes Mulford Farmhouse so ‘significant,’ but I’m glad their attempt to attract more tourism enticed me to visit. We laugh at the superstition, the ignorance, of the colonial era, but would they not laugh at us for our ignorance about how to produce our own food, our own clothing, our complete dependence on others for our comfort – and survival?

Almond Lemon Poppyseed Loaf (adapted from Sweetsonian and A Farmgirl’s Dabbles)

2 1/4 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
Zest of 2 lemons
1/4 cup poppy seeds
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/4 cup olive oil
4 eggs, room temperature
2 tsp almond extract

For the topping:

2 tbsp freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1/4-1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
Slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line loaf pan with parchment paper, then grease with butter.

Whip butter until light and fluffy, then gradually add sugar. Mix in eggs, one at a time, until fully incorporated. With mixer on medium-low, slowly add olive oil and almond extract until fully incorporated.

In another bowl, sift flour and salt together, then add to batter mixture. Stir in lemon zest and poppy seeds, then transfer to lined loaf pan.

Mix together lemon juice, powdered sugar, vanilla extract, and almond extract into a smooth glaze.

Bake for 30 minutes, then scatter almonds across the top. Wait another 10 minutes, then apply the first layer of glaze and more almonds. Wait another 10 minutes, then apply another layer of glaze and more almonds. Repeat one more time. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. The total baking time is about 1 hour, 20 minutes.

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