I feel very lucky to live just a couple of miles from the historic Harriton House, located just outside of Philadelphia. Harriton House was built in 1704 by a Welsh Quaker named Roland Ellis, but its most famous resident was Charles Thomson who retired there in 1798 after serving 15 years as the Secretary of the Continental and Confederation Congresses. He lived on the estate until his death in 1824.
Some of you might be wondering, “Who was this Charles Thomson guy?” Well, if you’ve ever looked at the back of a dollar bill, you have seen his work. He created the final design for the Great Seal of the United States. He was also the one who traveled to Mount Vernon in April of 1789 to let George Washington know that he had just been elected the first president of the United States under the new constitution.
Today, the 1704 structure has been faithfully restored to the “Thomson years” period and is furnished with a collection of fine 18th-century American decorative arts, including some objects owned and used by Charles Thomson himself. The estate is surrounded by a spacious park, complete with gardens and a stream and is home to Steady the horse, three sheep, and two goats who live in the former dairy barn.
Bruce Gill and Chef Walter Staib
The curator, Bruce Gill, is a friend of mine and a wealth of knowledge when it comes to life in the early nineteenth century. He manages the communal garden, raises honeybees, teaches school children about life on a farm and has taught me a lot about agriculture.
He also introduced me to Chef Walt Staib, another neighbor to the Harriton House and the proprietor of The City Tavern, Philadelphia’s historic restaurant where Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington once dined and discussed the future of our young nation.
Chef Staib is an amazing person. He was born in the Black Forest of Germany where he began his culinary career at age 4 in his uncle’s restaurant and has been working in the restaurant world for more than four decades. He has also written numerous cookbooks including:
A Feast of Freedom: Tasty Tidbits from the City Tavern – an illustrated children’s book that tells the story of City Tavern and its role in shaping the nation. I can’t wait to check out this one and share it with my kids.
I could go on and on about Bruce and Chef Walter, but let me get to the point of this post and that point is venison stew. A couple of weeks ago, Bruce called me up and told me some hunter friends of his had dropped off a couple of deer that were ready for skinning and butchering. He told me chef Walter was going to show them how to butcher the venison meat properly and asked if I wanted to come over and see how it was done.
I have to admit when I first walked into the garage where the two deer were hanging and partially skinned, it caught me by surprise. It’s not like walking into a supermarket and purchasing a steak or a leg of lamb from the display counter. It is much more graphic and then there is the smell associated with freshly killed meat.
Once the deer were skinned and prepped for butchering, they were brought into another room where chef Walter and his associate began the process of removing the meat carefully from the carcass and explaining what they were doing and the various cuts and how they could be used in cooking. It was fascinating!
Chef Staib explained to us that although a deer is much smaller then a cow and the meat much leaner, the cuts are exactly the same. We were able to see where the loin (backstrap) was located in comparison to the tenderloin. He showed us the various cuts coming from the leg and hindquarters including the Top Round, Bottom Round, Eye of Round and Sirloin Tip. There’s more but I can’t remember every cut he showed us.
At the end of the night, Bruce pulled a zip lock bag out of the freezer with about 4 pounds of venison stew meat from a previous kill and told me to try Walter’s recipe for Venison Stew from his cookbook, The City Tavern Cookbook. Last week I prepared Walter’s recipe for my family and our friend Greg and wanted to share with you our experience.
Harriton House & City Tavern
If you are in the Philadelphia area and want to go back in time and experience life in colonial times, take a visit out to Harriton House. If you check out their web site, you can get a full schedule of events coming up. It’s a great place to take the kids.
And if you are in Philadelphia visiting historic sites in Old Town, be sure to make a stop at The City Tavern and enjoy lunch, dinner or just a beer featuring Thomas Jefferson’s recipe. Every time I bring out of town friends there, they leave feeling like they just experienced a piece of history.