Time: The late 1840s. Place: Sherwood Forest Plantation along Virginia's James River. It is the scene of a grand ball, with a feast of sturgeon, shad and venison, and mutton with the fat four inches thick. The 10th president of the United States, John Tyler, and his wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler, are the hosts.
Time: Early in 1983. Place: The same. Cocktails are followed by a buffet dinner for 48, with wild turkey, Smithfield ham and scalloped oysters. It seems that little has changed. The hosts are President Tyler's grandson, Harrison, and his wife, Frances Payne Bouknight Tyler.
Yes, grandson. Age 54. When John Tyler was 68, he fathered his youngest son, Lyon. When Lyon was 75, he fathered his youngest son, Harrison.
While Harrison is busy being a president, too (of Richmond chemical company that he also owns), his wife (whom everyone calls Paynie) is busy being a genealogist, interested not only in how people are related, but what they ate. She has written "The James River Plantations Cookbook. A Glimpse into the Homes and Kitchens of Old Virginia" and is working on a sequel. And for $200 a person, she acts as hostess for select group dinners in President Tyler's dining room, where you can eat from heirloom procelain, drink from private-collection demitasse cups and sit on petit point chairs.
The setting for these flashback affairs is a house as long as a football field (the longest frame house in the country, the postcards say), poised between Williamsburg and Richmond in Tidewater's Charles City County, the East Hampton of the 1800s. It is a county of aristocracy clinging to its roots, a county of "happy intermarriage," as described by Paynie Tyler. It is a place where everyone, remarked one dinner guest, eventually tells you he's related to Pocahontas.
Sherwood Forest is furnished in part with President Tyler's furniture brought from the White House (Congress wouldn't allot the Tylers redecorating money so Julia Gardiner Tyler bought her own), the rest carted from Paynie Tyler's South Carolina plantation home, Mulberry Hill. Sherwood Forest, bought from Harrison Tyler's first cousin, has been the Tylers' home since 1975.
It is Tara minus Mammy. A long banister in the foyer swirls its way upstairs and there is a narrow ballroom built expressly for dancing the Virginia Reel. Constructed piecemeal from 1660 to 1845, the house has a seemingly endless corridor of rooms ("it takes a lot of running "cause it's so long," said David Cone of Party Pantry, the caterer for the Party).
Paynie Tyler is the talker when it comes to her husband's heritage. He never voluntarily makes any reference to his past, she said, though their shared purpose in maintaining and living in Sherwood Forest is to be "caretakers of the past for the future." And, she added, "it's a hell of a responsibility."
Unlike other kitchens built in the mid-1600s that are now used only as tourist exhibits, this original kitchen is still used for cooking by Paynie Tyler's mother, also named Frances Payne Bouknight, who lives in an apartment attached to the house.When having some renovation done on the kitchen, Paynie Tyler found a friend with a set of antique kitchen cabinets she didn't use.
This room forces 17th century to meet 20th. The fireplace is intact, with rifles hanging above, copper kettles below. Although not used on a regular basis for cooking, it comes in handy, as after a recent snowstorm when all the electricity went off in the house. The Tylers heated brunswick stew over the hearth -- true to this day and age, it came from cans -- and for dessert poured syrup on cake that had been toasted over the fire.
Now a toaster sits on the counter. And though John Tyler's Canton china (thanks to grandfather Tyler having opened trade routes to China, says Paynie) is set on a table brought to the house by Julia Gardiner Tyler after the War Between the States, now there is a dishwasher.
The Tylers installed a modern kitchen for every day use when they moved in; the hallway from Bouknight's apartment to the new kitchen used to be called the "whistling walk." In the olden times, servants had to whistle as they carried meals from the old kitchen to the dining room. If they stopped whistling, it was suspected they were snitching and eating the food, said Paynie Tyler.
In contrast to the 1660 kitchen, the 1975 kitchen looks like a typical suburban Virginia kitchen: dark brown cabinets with antique-like handles, hanging plant over the sink window, magnets on the refrigerator, a General Electric food processor.
John Tyler frequently served mint juleps to visiting heads of state on the plantation's veranda overlooking the back-yard woods, and was himself a fan of the drink.
Mint was grown on the premises to support the president's habit, Paynie Tyler suspected, but she could never find the place. Then, last year, her cook found a large patch of herb growing wild near the stables. "I knew it had to be there," said Paynie. She says she uses it now, but probably not for too many mint juleps. Grandson Harrison doesn't like them; he said he's "more partial to vodka."
During his four years in office, John Tyler came to be known as the "president without a party." Originally a southern Democrat, he split from his party to run on the Whig ticket, as vice president under William Henry Harrison in 1840. When Harrison died a month after his inaugural and Tyler took over, the new president became increasingly disliked by Whigs who felt his politics were really with the Democrats. Julia Gardiner Tyler set out to mend this splinter, initiating her tenure as first lady with an enormous gala. Later, she would write to her husband, "Now, no one can say you are a president without a party." Throughout the administration, she would continue to entertain congressional delegations regularly -- twice a month.
Harrison Tyler is extremely interested in politics, said his wife, but not in a "public way." Now most of the entertaining at Sherwood Forest is for "personal friends." When the weather is nice, the local plantation owners will join each other informally for hamburgers in the back yard or, laughs Paynie Tyler, "swimming naked in the goose pond." Those at the January party included former Virginia governor John Dalton and his wife, Richmond attorneys, tobacco executives and neighboring plantation owners. (Guests are introduced by both name and city or plantation of residence).
"I would doubt she cooked," said Paynie Tyler of her great-grandmother-in-law Julia, considering she had 13 servants. How does Tyler do it? If it is for fewer than 25 guests, she'll do the cooking; more than that, she hires a caterer. When she does the cooking, it's nothing formal or elegant, and she won't branch out to unfamiliar dishes. Mostly southern fare -- mutton, lamb or chicken. Or maybe shrimp sauteed in butter and wine.
Her cookbook, a collection of recipes from the neighboring plantations, "was really intended to be a guidebook to Charles City County." She loves to cook, she said, although she never was permitted to at her own plantation home.
Pre-party preparations are in gear. Harrison is munching peanuts while his wife dresses. A son ventures downstairs seeking a cummerbund (this is a black tie-optional affair). The caterer arrives, the musicians tune up.
One purpose of this party is to eat Harrison's three wild turkeys. Like their forefathers, the present-day Tylers have a passion for hunting. Their 24-year-old daughter, Julia, who paints animal portraits, recently hunted wild boar in Corsica. At home, huting boots line an upstairs ledge like ducks in a row.
If there's one thing Harrison Tyler feels strongly about as far as food is concerned, it's wild turkey. "It's the best thing you've ever ate in your life," he said. When the Tylers cook game, he directs th operation, he said, "cause Paynie forgets."
The gaminess of a wild turkey needs no accompaniment; you need serve ham to complement only the bland tame turkey, he claims. In cooking, the game must be raised from the heat, covered and cooked at a very low temperature. He could have done a better job of cooking his wild turkeys than this evening's caterers, he said after the party. (The turkey chef admits it was the first time he'd ever cooked one).
After a successful hunt, Tyler will hang the game on boards outside the wine house -- with 18th-century nails. No more gutting the game at Sherwood Forest, like the old days, though. He sends the turkeys, ducks or geese, to the Richmond Country Club where they are cleaned, feathered and frozen.
He used to cook -- until he got married, he said. (Now, he says, he never cooks, but his wife refers to his culinary talents in her book. His specialty, he finally admitted, is stirfrying.)
John Tyler was an avid winemaker. Muscadine, scuppernong and dandelion wines were stored yearly in the wine house. And the family also experimented with making ice cream. In an attempt to keep it cold, holes were dug in the back yard and the ice cream stored underground. To this day, the Tylers still make their own ice cream. (Now, though, they store it above ground.)
Sherwood Forest Plantation used to be open daily to the public, but now tours are available by appointment only. It got to be too much: The maintenance costs on the driveway tripled, a pair of Paynie Tyler's L.L. Bean boots were stolen. And besides, she said, she was tired of hearing departing tourists say, "President Taylor's house was great."
Here are some Tyler recipes (or receipts, as Tidewater folk would still have it), past and present. HARRISON TYLERS WILD DUCK (2to 4 servings)
Harrison "carves atrociously" said his wife, so the Tylers always serve half a duck per person. And Harrison "likes his duck to be bleed when he bites into it," so he broils it for only 20 minutes. In the absense of wild ducks, this recipe works with a domestic one as well. 4- to 5-pound duck Vodka or gin to cover duck Lemon pepper, freshly ground black pepper and garlic salt to taste 2 apples, quartered 2 stalks celery, cut into 2-inch lengths
Cut duck down the middle, making sure not to cut all the way, lest the duck split in half. Place duck in a saucepan and rinse with vodka or gin, letting liquor seep into duck for about 30 seconds. Pour off liquor, but do not discard. Rinse duck again with liquor and pour off. Repeat procedure two more times, discarding liquor after last rinse.
Season duck with lemon and black peppers and garlic salt and place in broiler. Place duck on lowest shelf of broiling element and broil for 20 to 40 minutes, depending on how rare you like it, turning every 10 minutes. Fill duck cavity with apples and celery during last 10 minutes. Cut duck in half (or quarters) and serve. TYLER PUDDING (Makes a 9-inch pie)
This recipe was a favorite with President John Tyler. It is really more a cream pie than a pudding. 9-inch unbaked pie crust 2 tablespoons butter 1 cup sugar 2 eggs, well beaten 1/4 cup whipping cream 1 cup freshly grated coconut
Pre-bake pie crust for 15 minutes at 425 degrees. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, cream and coconut. Pour into pie crust and cook for 50 minutes at 300 degrees.
Adapted from "The James River Plantation Cookbook" TYLER WINE JELLY (4 to 6 servings)
In the 19th century, jelly referred to gelatin desserts like this one, prepared in a shallow pan, cut into squares and topped with freshly whipped cream. 1 cup sugar 2 1/4 cups cold water Rind of 1 1/2 lemons 1 1/2 tablespoons gelatin soaked in 1/3 cup cold water 1 cup sherry 1/2 cup rum or substitute white port for both rum and sherry Juice of 2 lemons Sugar, grated lemon rind and whipped cream for serving
In a saucepan, combine sugar, 1 1/4 cups of the water and ungrated rind of lemons.Bring to a boil and continue cooking for 20 minutes. Soften gelatin in 1/3 cup cold water for 3 minutes, then add to boiling mixture and stir until it dissolves. Off heat, remove lemon rind and add the remaining cup of cold water, sherry, rum and lemon juice. Stir and bring to room tempereature. Stir well before refrigerating. Spoon into individual bowls and flavor to taste with sugar. Top with whipped cream and grated lemon rind. PAYNE TYLER'S SHRIMP WITH GRITS (4 serving)
"Every southern house had them," says Paynie of the scuppernong grape, describing how she used to climb on top of her family plantation's arbors as a girl. This is a favorite present-day Tyler breakfast. 4 tablespoons butter 2 cups fresh shrimp 1/4 cup scuppernong wine * 2 cups cooked grits