“Eating Up History in Colonial Williamsburg” * Essay * Kate Chamberlin

For three days in 1999,we walked and ate our way through Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia! We Stepped back into the 18th Century, an era when our forefathers were on the cusp of revolution. We walked the paths and ate in the taverns where the American Revolution began and our new nation was born.

Colonial Williamsburg is In the center of one of America’s most historic triangles. just southwest is Jamestown, where English colo­nization took root in 1607; southeast is Yorktown, where George Washington and his Continental army defeated the British 174 years later. A short drive from each lies Williamsburg, the colonial capital of the Virginia colony.

We’d read up on each of the taverns (as restaurants in the 1700’s were called) and called ahead to make reservations. We planned to eat in a different Colonial Williamsburg tavern for every meal.

We weren’t exactly sure what time we’d arrive on our first day, so we ate in the Williamsburg Lodge (our hotel) dining room. We walked from our building, past the physical fitness center, circumvented the duck pond and went into the main building housing the lobby, restaurant, lounges, and theaters.

Our first challenge was to get my Black Lab guide dog, Finchlee Grace, to walk PAST the ducks, which were very tame. They enjoyed walking right in front of her, snoozing just out of reach and landing near her nose.

When I saw “breast of duck” on the menu, I needed lots of assurance from the waitress that I wouldn’t be eating one of our friends from the pond!

The Breast of Duck with Raisin Sauce, bread pudding, asparagus and chutney garnish was delicious. However, the salad that preceded my entree was rather unique and fascinating!

I ordered “salad greens”. It arrived and the waitress graciously explained it to me as my husband told me to put my hands down and listen!

There were a variety of leafy greens about six-inches tall sticking straight up out of a toasted bread troth about four-inches long. The dressing was squiggled in a pattern like a border on the plate with grape tomatoes plopped onto the dressing (I guess so they wouldn’t roll off!)

Shield’s Tavern salad on a fish plate with tomato, carrot, egg, cheese.

I asked the waitress how one gracefully eats this delight to behold. She suggested I could have the pleasure of knocking it over and using a fork. An indelicately large cream puff completed my dinner.

Each morning we feasted from the Williamsburg Lodge’s breakfast buffet. You know how important it is to have a good breakfast to start each day! There wasn’t anything more you could ever want – it was all there for a ridiculously low price.

Chowning’s Tavern was our destination for our first lunch in the Historic section of Colonial Williamsburg. Since the weather was unseasonably hot at 98-degrees and just about that for humidity, Dave ordered a glass of water before anything else.

When the “wench” brought it, she informed him that in the 1700’s he never would have wanted to order water as it was so dirty. Warm beer was the drink of the time.

I had a delightful green salad (like a modern, laying down salad) and a glass of root beer made from the original recipe. When the wench cleared the table after lunch, she informed me that the noon-day meal was supposed to be the largest meal of the day and asked, “Did Madam have enough to eat?”

After we witnessed the British flag being lowered, the Virginia flag being raised, listened to excellent fife and drum music, and three volleys of muskets, we headed to the King’s Arms Tavern. All three of us – Dave, Finchlee and I – were dog tired and it felt very good to sit down and relax in an air-conditioned room. They graciously watered my dog and us too.

They had huge cloth napkins that were meant to be tied behind your neck. I was very impressed with the peanut soup, varieties of relishes (served almost like we would serve a vegetable side-dish) and a sinful pecan pie. We waddled back to our hotel for a hilarious, evening play; however, we were so tired we actually fell asleep in our chairs amidst the laughter.

Thursday’s lunch found us in Merchant’s Square at the Trellis Restaurant. Peter, our sighted guide, warned us to save room for dessert, so, I had a turkey sandwich and Dave had a broiled chicken sandwich. The Trellis is known for its chocolate confections. Need I say more?

A trellised outdoor eating area with a sign that reads “The Trellis Bar & Grill.”

Although my husband is sighted, I had arranged to have a sighted guide for the first two days of our three day visit. Peter Wheylan, a tall, good looking lad in his twenties, dressed in an official polo shirt and tan slacks, greeted us on our first morning. Peter was a May ’99 graduate of William and Mary College with a major in American Studies and had been working at Colonial Williamsburg for about seven years, so he was a virtual font of knowledge.

Peter opened doors and let down barriers so I experienced even more than regular tourists would or could in this living museum. In the Prentis House, which is not open to the public, he took us into the small home where we practically ransacked the place feeling all the hand-made clothes the men, women and children used to wear. It was there that I played an 18th Century harpsichord.

By dinner time, the Shields Tavern was just wat we needed to restore our tired bodies and aching feet. The weather hadn’t been quite as hot as yesterday, but for us northerners, it was plenty warm. In an effort to join the spirit of the times, we each ordered a “local ale”.

Shields Tavern Fried Chicken on a fish plate in front of a man’s belly.

Thus, feeling sufficiently mellowed, we ordered the Shield’s Sampler of the 1700’s food. Fabulous, although I’m not sure exactly what I ate. I think things like, stuffed mushrooms, a meat puff, and…Oh dear Gussie, at any rate we were too full for dessert.

Our final lunch was at The Seasons Restaurant in Merchant’s Square. Dave and I were without Peter today, but we still managed to wear ourselves out!

We shared a deliciously creamy and tasty spinach/artichoke dip with Italian bread rounds. While Dave headed for the salad bar, I dug into the Season’s House Salad. It was loaded with black olives, chicken chunks, varieties of leafy greens (each with its own flavor), and a wonderful dressing (though I couldn’t tell you what it was!).

Unwittingly, we’d saved the best for last. It was Friday and we’d made reservations at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern on the historic Market Square. This tavern is known for its fish dishes.

Christiana Campbell’s Tavern front gabled colonial house with a peeked roof, paned windows, and brick chimneys.

I like to coordinate things, so I thought to myself: What goes with fish? Lemon, of course. I started off with a drink called a Lemon Shrub. It was a delightful lemonade, well, okay, it had rum in it and since I have enough trouble walking, I only had one Lemon Shrub.

My entree was a bay scallop and shrimp combination in a wonderfully light, creamed wine sauce.

Our entrees were served with spoon bread and the ubiquitous sippit (something like Zwieback that is served with everything and used to push your food onto your fork, or, if you don’t have a fork, to use as a scoop.)

Now, to follow through on my theme: I ordered the pecan creme Brule pie. Actually, it was a rum cream pie with pecans on the top!

Each day characters in period costumes would re-enact a day during the 18th Century. That evening, we “witnessed” the lowering of the British flag and the raising of the colonial flag. We saluted and headed into the King’s Arms Tavern with the rest of the troops. We raised our steins to celebrate the labor pains that led to the birth of our Nation.

Back at our hotel, the ducks waddled passed us toward the pond to sleep as we waddled up to our hotel room. I fell asleep with visions of Lemon Shrubs, Breast of Duck, Spinach-Artichoke dip, and Rum Cream pie swirling in my head.

King’s Arms Tavern with a columned porch with its sign that reads “the king’s Arms Tavern: the finest foods, beverages, etc., both foreign and domestic.”


*A version of this essay first appeared in my weekly column ‘Cornucopia; the Wayne County STAR Newspaper, July 8, 1999.

—About the Author—

Kathryn (Kate) Chamberlin is a current member of the Wayne Writer’s
Guild, Visionary support group, free-lance writer/editor,
and Accessibility Ambassadress to the Memorial Art Gallery (Rochester, NY). Her pieces have appeared in ‘Good Dog! Magazine’, ‘Paper Clips’, ‘Poetic Voices of America’, ‘Threads Magazine’, and MAGNETS AND LADDERS, Active Voices of Writers with Disabilities, as well as three children’s books: The Night Search, Green Trillium, and Charles and David. She and her husband are now empty nest, great-grandparents and enjoy having lunch out, country walks during the good weather, and mall cruising during the inclement
weather or on their side-by-side treadmills.

For more of Kate’s writing on Aromatica Poetica, check out “The Smells of Home.”