It was a bit by chance that Walter Staib, a chef from the Black Forest region of Germany, began to realize not only the historical significance of Philadelphia but also the area’s contributions to American cuisine.
Staib relocated to serve as proprietor of Philadelphia’s City Tavern Restaurant, but he soon discovered how men like Thomas Jefferson and friend Charles Thomson were responsible for modern-day staples, said Molly Yun, an assistant to Staib. For example, Jefferson grew different varieties of potatoes, debunked myths about tomatoes being poisonous and combined noodles with cheese.
“I used to have very little appreciation for 18th Century cooking, like everybody else,” Staib said. “But so much was done in the 18th Century—especially right here. Right here, here.”
“Here” is Harriton House in Bryn Mawr, where Continental Congress Secretary Charles Thomson lived in the late 1700s and close to where Staib lives now. Over the long weekend, Staib was filming several episodes for the third season of “A Taste of History,” an Emmy Award-winning show that airs on PBS.
In the show, he prepares historical meals, which he’s researched by finding actual recipes from the colonial era and adapts them for modern day. And while he’s sure there aren’t many people who run out to buy rooster combs and beef tongues, he said it’s fun to explain the cultural and historical significance.
“Beef tongue is one of my favorites,” Staib said. “Other people just gross out.”
On Friday, he prepared beef tongue in a caper sauce, periwinkles (sea snails), onion soup and chicken curry.
And it’s all authentic. He cooks everything fresh over an open hearth, he controls the temperature by the number and length of the hooks from which the pots hang, and he uses actual dishware from Harriton House. The only thing he doesn’t try to replicate is the dress—in part because it would have been women doing much of the cooking in the colonial era.
If he weren’t a chef, he does have one other idea of what he’d like to do:
“If I had my druthers, I wanted to be a general,” Staib said. “It’s in my blood. Chef first, general second.”
He loves cooking, though, because there’s so much creativity involved and because there’s instant gratification when he finishes cooking a meal. It’s never boring, he says.
“We keep the show serious to an extent,” Staib said. “But it’s always exciting. It’s all good.”
After wrapping up filming Monday in Bryn Mawr, the crew is headed to Jamaica and the Bahamas to round out the third season of Staib’s show. They plan to start filming for Season 4 in the spring.
“A Taste of History” airs on WHYY at 4 p.m. Saturdays and on NJN at 5 p.m. Saturdays.