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Ostrum: Flip Dog and the Raisin Seeder

12/20/10 5:55PM By Meg Ostrum
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(HOST)  Recently commentator Meg Ostrum visited the Sheldon Museum in Middlebury - a community museum and one of Vermont's oldest collecting institutions.

(OSTRUM) Though often confused with the much larger Shelburne Museum,  it was founded in 1882 by antiquarian Henry Sheldon. Successive generations of locals have contributed their own valued belongings, creating what author Howard Mansfield has called a "memory house."Recently commentator Meg Ostrum* visited the Sheldon** Museum in Middlebury - a community museum and one of Vermont's oldest collecting institutions.

The holidays offer a special opportunity to showcase the museum's sizable collection of 19th and early 20th century food processing equipment and tableware.  Besides nutmeg graters galore and myraid homemade and patented apple peeling devices, a few particular objects drew my attention. 

The first was a forged implement called a flip dog.  This long-handled hearthside tool with a tear-shaped end first was heated in glowing coals.  Then, like an immersion blender, it was plunged and rotated in a large, drinking vessel to quickly steam a mixture of beer, sugar or molasses, and rum.  The resulting bitter-tasting concoction, known as flip, was a popular alcoholic drink in parlors and taverns in New England into the early 19th century. Henry Sheldon's collection records refer to the tool as a "flipper," used at the social festivities of Middlebury's prominent early families. He also noted that the museum owned the only known example in town. What impressed me about the flip dog was that it represented the survival of an Iron Age cooking technique, a relic of the archaeological Old World in the Green Mountains.  
The second item was an elaborate, lever-armed device called a raisin seeder.  Seedless grapes only became commonplace just over a century ago, so dried raisins had to be moistened, then squeezed to extract the seeds.  Small cast iron raisin seeding machines, which clamped to a table, began appearing in the l870s.  The Sheldon Museum's 1895 model was the swan-like Audrey Hepburn of these labor-saving inventions.  It was also the kind of modern kitchen gadget likely to have been purchased through a Montgomery Ward or Sears' mail order catalogue, rather than bought at the general store. I had to wonder, of course, whether there had been a domestic discussion about the economics or ethics of the purchase, since the late l9th century was the era when national mail order houses began to permanently erode the tradition of local trading.   

For Henry Sheldon, remembering the past was a preoccupation.  Keeping up with the present mostly demands our full attention, but holiday preparation rituals afford a momentary," rearview mirror glance"  backward.  In our home kitchens, the heirloom molds, cookie cutters, gadgets and utensils we use to produce treasured recipes help us tangibly reconnect to family roots, to lives known and unknown. The flip dog and the raisin seeder, though obsolete, are also a handful of history.  They are humble community keepsakes that help us understand the lives of ordinary people in the past - and provide perspectives on our own.
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