Cooking up history
Chef Walter Staib brings A Taste of History to Pennsbury Manor
By Samantha Bambino
Instead of its usual student visitors, Pennsbury Manor hosted a slightly different crowd earlier this month — a director, camera crew and Emmy Award-winning host. This was Chef Walter Staib, creator and executive producer of PBS’ A Taste of History, who chose to feature William Penn’s former estate on season nine of his culinary series.
A Taste of History combines Staib’s two passions of cuisine and history as he dives into the personal lives and culinary preferences of the Founding Fathers. For him, it’s all about adding personality to history. By showcasing what would’ve been on their dinner tables, he makes these figures of the past seem less abstract.
A few years ago, Staib filmed a brief segment at Pennsbury Manor, but knew he wanted to shed more light on the estate.
“I had always planned to come here and do it more justice,” he said.
After a chance encounter last year with the manor’s managing director, Sarah DiSantis, at the Museum of the American Revolution, concrete plans began to take shape for Staib to return to Bucks County. Throughout the summer, DiSantis was in touch with his production team to work out details, and after receiving approval from the commonwealth last month, filming dates were set for Nov. 6 and 7.
Upon arrival, Staib, executive director Tom Daly and the rest of the crew immediately set to work for their almost 16-hour day. The first day was dedicated to filming the cooking portion of the show, which always takes up half an episode. Staib cooked a full harvest meal, which served more than 20 staff members and volunteers. The meal was served family style, which he said was common in the 18th century when people liked to control their own portions.
Dishes included foods that would have been seen on Penn’s own dinner table such as catfish stew, elk stew, fritters with cranberry and pineapple, smoked ham hock and bread pudding. According to Staib, hours of effort went into the creation of this one meal. Beforehand, he scoured historical textbooks and cookbooks, researching the recipes and practicing them. Still, he enjoyed every second of it, especially since he almost never needs to cook the same dish twice.
In his nine years hosting A Taste of History, Staib has traveled to 15 countries including France, England, Africa and Japan with the food varying by location. Still, each recipe is related to key historical figures in some way, whether it be George Washington, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, whose meals always included wine.
“We go wherever the 18th century takes us,” he said.
During the second half of each A Taste of History episode, viewers have the chance to go beyond the food and dive further into history. This segment includes interviews, background information and scenic footage of the location. In Pennsbury’s episode, Staib will cover topics such as the life of Penn and how integral the joiners and blacksmiths were in farm life. This was all filmed on his second day at the manor. A lifelong history buff, Staib doesn’t use scripts or notecards, but rather a few buzzwords to help keep him on track. Despite the clouds and wind on the brisk fall day, Staib was ever the professional in his white chef’s coat, discussing the rich life of Pennsylvania’s founder.
The episode is expected to air in the summer of 2018 as part of season nine. For more information on A Taste of History, visit atasteofhistory.org. For more on Pennsbury Manor, visit pennsburymanor.org. ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com