On normal days I meet with my students in classrooms or gardens. I’m a Professor in Applied Food Studies at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and my students are interested in sustainability and culture as well as cooking. We recreate historical recipes like Aztec amaranth cookies, we tend the campus beehives, or we harvest tiny sour ornamental cherries to make jam. But today is different. Today I get to use my professional background in archaeology and take my students on a walk through history.
We walk north from the campus’ main gathering place: Roth Hall, where our students attend most of their classes and eat in the dining hall that looks like a cathedral.
Moving past dormitories with names like Cayenne Lodge and Escoffier Townhouse, we reach what is literally the end of the road. As we walk, I tell them stories—how the stone outcroppings on campus and throughout the area are chunks of bedrock, revealed as the great glaciers of the last Ice Age ground their way out of the north, pushing topsoil ahead of them like bulldozers. I share how that same paucity of topsoil made the Hudson Valley great for orchards and cattle, but not so good for standard agriculture. I talk about the Hyde Park, NY mastodon, the great fossil bones that were found near campus, and how Route 9 on the edge of campus was probably once the edge of the great ice flow that carved the route for the mighty Hudson River, with mammoth and mastodon migrating along the banks. After the mammoth went extinct, this pathway was maintained by deer and the indigenous Mahican and Wappinger peoples who once inhabited this land. Now it’s a highway that brings students and visitors to our campus home.
Traces of these indigenous people have been found on campus during the construction of student housing. Perhaps six thousand years before our students braised short ribs in our kitchens, a hunting band butchered deer on the crest of a hill overlooking the Hudson. Butchered bones, fire-cracked rock, and broken stone tools were found during the excavations.
When the road ends beyond the townhouses, we walk down a grassy slope and onto a path that leads into a shadowy woodland. To most people, these forests look like a landscape untouched by human hands. However, as we walk, I point out clues to my students that we are hardly the first visitors: there is a dry-laid stone wall. Beyond it is the brick base of a hearth, in the midst of the huge expanse of vinca vine with its periwinkle blue flowers. To someone who sees with archaeological eyes, these things tell a story. My students aren’t in an untouched woodland, we have instead come to the center of what was once a sizable settlement.
Today, this settlement is known as the Maritjekill site, after the small stream that flows down the center of the gorge. This stream once powered a mill wheel, as is proven by the dam that still stands across part of the gorge. Mills are the unsung heroes of colonial life, the one necessary piece of equipment that allowed farmers to support communities. They made the settlement of the Hudson Valley both profitable and vital in the 17th and 18th centuries. The foundation of the mill at the Maritjekill site has been identified as well and dates from at least 1738. From 1738 to 1874, it was a mill for processing fibers, a sawmill, and a gristmill.
Gristmills especially were vital to the growth of these small communities, because a gristmill, and the flour and bread it produced, were the mainstay of the colonial diet. With no access to flour and bread, settlements would wither and die. The Maritjekill mill has a more tragic history, though, since like many other rural farm sites throughout the Hudson Valley and New York State, much of the work at the mill was done by enslaved people of African descent. We don’t know their names, but census records list at least six enslaved people as present in the millers’ households between 1797 and 1822.
Stone terraces stretch across the hillsides, and my students scramble up and down between them. On the next level up from where we see the mill, there is a square depression in the ground. Near this abandoned cellar hole are two plants that give a window into life at the site in the 19th century: a lilac and what my students immediately identify as carrot plants. They are surprised to find the roots of the carrot are tiny and pale, not the sweet orange vegetables they use daily in their kitchen classes. I explain that the lilacs were planted to give the backyard of the nearby house a sweet aroma (necessary in a time before plumbing and trash collection), while the carrots are feral, escapees from some 18th or 19th century garden.
When plants escape domestication, they no longer have any incentive to provide humans with things that taste good. They lose their sweetness in exchange for survival. These tiny roots are terribly bitter to modern palates, because the plants no longer rely on humans to spread their seeds. Today they thrive on their own. Plant mapping has been proven to be an effective way to identify the locations of ancient houses and settlements – our food plants stay in the landscape for centuries or even millennia after we depart. Culinary students being who they are (endlessly inventive and passionate about their work, I’ve found) one of my students will carry home a harvest of these tiny bitter veggies and try to see what he can make from them. Pickled, brined, fermented… eventually discarded. Nothing made these feral carrots tasty to modern palates!
We identify more structures, and there are as many as nine foundations in the area, a mix of old houses and barns, as well as a few industrial buildings like the mills. There are terraces and paths, trash middens, and the remains of gardens to examine. I stress to my students that all the remains—the hearth of the forgotten fireplace once used for cooking, the oyster shells brought north from New York Harbor that we find embedded in a path, the mill with its tragic past, and the discarded ceramics littering the slopes down to the steam—these are all the marks of the need that these people had to sustain themselves. Here at the Maritjekill site, indigenous people hunted deer or mammoth, butchered and cooked their food and ate together around their fires. In the colonial village, people both enslaved and free grew and milled their grain, and baked bread for their communities.
We head out of the woods, and my students scatter, some to other classes, others to restaurant kitchens or their dorms, and I can’t help but wonder what we’ll leave behind on this land for some future generation to discover.
Dr. Maureen Costura is a professor of liberal arts at our New York campus and is currently teaching a variety of classes in the Applied Food Studies bachelor’s degree program, like Gastronomy, Archaeology of Food, and Global Cultures and Cuisines. She holds a PhD in anthropology and an MA in archaeology from Cornell University. Her major research interests include French colonial societies and the archaeology of daily life, particularly the archaeology of food. Dr. Costura also maintains the on-campus apiary and beehives.