Authentic Period Cuisine Offered at The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village

Get a taste of the past by trying these eateries at the Dearborn museum.
Patrons at Greenfield Village’s A Taste of History enjoy food from themed stations. // Photograph by E.E. Berger

Most metro Detroiters are likely very familiar with the sights, sounds, and tactile experiences that help visitors engage with history at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. But did you know there is a taste element of the learning experience as well?

Guests at both sites on The Henry Ford’s campus in Dearborn can connect to the past at the various venues serving food there. Curators and chefs at The Henry Ford have hit the books — vintage cookbooks such as What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking and The Virginia Housewife, that is, plus pamphlets and periodicals — to create authentic menus from the 1850s through the mid-20th century.

“What you get to see, smell, and taste completes the circle of teaching history through living history,” says Jim Johnson, Greenfield Village’s director. “We’ve been doing historic foodways in earnest since the 1980s.”

Jeanine Head Miller, The Henry Ford’s curator of domestic life, adds, “We work very hard to make our food experiences authentic, delicious, and immersive.”

Experiential engagement with history helps us better understand and connect to people of the past and their daily lives, says Juli McLoone, a curator in the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Michigan. And food “offers an all-encompassing sensory experience.”

Here are some of the venues and offerings you will find on The Henry Ford campus.

Greenfield Village

Eagle Tavern

Kasey Faraj, sous-chef for The Henry Ford, calls this transplanted 1850s tavern “the king of historic food in the Village.” Research for Eagle Tavern menus includes reading travelers’ accounts and merchants’ notebooks from the time.

“The menus must be historically accurate,” he says.

Back then, only local, in-season ingredients or those brought in by rail were used. Foods mentioned most often in the sources, Faraj notes, are strawberries, corn, potatoes, salted or smoked pork, and root vegetables.

“If a food’s not available seasonally, we don’t cook it,” Faraj says.

Menus change every four to five weeks. This June, they’ll include potato croquettes, pork cutlets, pan-fried corn fritters with pork gravy, fried tomatoes, strawberry pie, and brandy-soaked peaches served over shortcake.

A Taste of History

A Taste of History has themed stations. One features recipes adapted from the works of Abby Fisher, an Alabama Black woman born into slavery who moved to San Francisco after Emancipation and wrote cookbooks.

On the menu: fried chicken with gumbo gravy, succotash, red beans and rice, and pickled cabbage and pepper slaw.The George Washington Carver station serves roasted green-tomato soup and kale-peanut salad.

Owl Night Lunch Wagon

Owl Night Lunch Wagon, the 1927-era food truck that once served Detroit’s night workers, dishes up burgers and “historic frankfurters,” hearty smoked sausages prepared with milk, pork, and beef, developed from vintage recipes The Henry Ford chefs researched.

The Henry Ford Museum

Lamy’s Diner

This re-created 1946 New England diner’s menu includes sandwiches, soups, and specialty cream beverages. Potato chips from Marlborough, Massachusetts, are shipped in.

Plum Market Kitchen

This month, the sit-down eatery features a Julia Child-themed menu — the museum’s exhibit celebrating the pioneering chef runs through September. The menu at Plum Kitchen Market features salade Nicoise and coq au vin chicken breast.

What’s Old Is New Again

The old-school foodways answer today’s demand for food that’s local, seasonal, and sustainably produced and that incorporates healthy and flavorful fermentation. They resonate with contemporary consumers.

“People are eating as they did in historic days,” says Eric Schilbe, executive sous-chef for The Henry Ford. “‘Organic,’ ‘heirloom,’ ‘local,’ and ‘natural’ are buzzwords today, but they were once a way of life since they were all that was available. Here, that’s just cooking for us.”

The bottom line?

“Food is a huge thing that connects people,” Johnson says.

This story is from the June 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition