Tea with Paula Marcoux
by Pam Denholm
I have bumped into Paula many times over the past few years as our hurried schedules overlapped in local food circles. Instead of slowly getting to know her better, she became more of an enigma as I glimpsed snapshots of her experiences and colorful career—an archeologist working in the Middle East? A cook for the Carnegie family on Cumberland Island? A dedicated crewman maintaining the Mayflower II? Writer, editor, food historian, movie consultant, oven builder … the list goes on! It was with a tremendous sense of anticipation that I pulled into her dirt driveway at her quaint Plymouth home on one of the many picturesque ponds.
When you first meet Paula, you will immediately be put at ease by her approachable, welcoming demeanor, though the first thing you will truly notice is her use of language. There are no contractions on her end of the conversation, no y’alls or c’mon’s, no slang, or acronyms. Paula has a beautiful command of the English language that might sound condescending on some, but she is so unpretentious that you lean in, thirsting for more. I had brought with me a piece of coriander spiced dried meat called biltong, a commonplace treat from my birth-country, South Africa, its not something you say ‘I can’t wait to eat that!’ when you first see it. Paula, with her passion for all things food, bit right in, wanting to know more about the processes and ingredients. And it is this sense of curiosity that has propelled her fascinating, curious life along a journey of discovery and learning.
Standing in Paula’s kitchen, and watching her move intuitively through her space as she prepared our tea, I was enchanted by all the little details that speak to who Paula is; the little woven basket tea strainers, the curious wooden cooking utensils clustered on various surfaces, cast iron griddles and pans, and shelves holding the very-much-treasured and well-used cookbooks from decades past.
My observations continued as we carried our pottery mugs of tea through the living room, with well-appointed arm chairs, and a wood stove (but no TV), emerging onto the sun dappled porch overlooking the timber-lined pond. Paula talks about the experience of buying this piece of land, and living in a trailer while she and her husband built the house themselves.
The house is comfortable and inviting, a well-considered space for two history lovers to call home. Pret, Paula’s partner of twenty-six years, is a professional hewer and timber frame carpenter; and well-versed in ancient building tools and techniques—preferring these methods over modern power tools and metal nails. As Paula talks about Pret, her mouth lifts in a smile, and every expression is laced with warmth and pride. She recalls when they first met, both working at Plimoth Plantation as interpreters and guides. She saw his name on the roster of assignments: Preston Woodburn—an ostentatious first impression for sure, though short-lived as he is as down to earth as she is. The two quickly became good friends and were married just six years ago.
Paula found a home among kindred spirits for many years at the Plantation. Having studied archeology at Brown University and attended a number of excavations in Israel and Jordan, she found herself captivated by how people sourced, cooked, prepared, and stored food. What types of grains were used, the types of fats, the shapes of the breads—Paula wanted to know more! She was considering a PhD in archeology at the University of Arizona, when she applied for the position of Colonial Interpreter at Plimoth Plantation, and was promoted to Foodways Manager within the first year. Paula combined her love of history, her training in archeology, and passion for food and baking in a tangible, exciting way that was new to her.
“…it is often Pret who saves the day with a quickly carved replacement for my mislaid or forgotten whisk or spatula–so I guess my ‘must have’ is Pret!” she laughs.”
These interests and experiences are directly responsible for the variety of wood burning ovens speckled around her yard, tucked into a stone wall or under rustic shelters. A large clay and stone oven that “bakes the best breads,” Paula says, “started life as a research project” as she used a mix of archaeology and documents to divine what sort of oven might have been built in the summer of 1606 by Samuel de Champlain’s men, when they put into a harbor on Cape Cod with a disabled sailing vessel and a failed bread supply. In another area in Paula’s yard, a smaller oven is built around a clay-pottered insert. The insert was modeled on those that English settlers brought with them, so that ovens soon be built after making land fall. “A sort of transportable oven,” Paula smiles. Near a stone wall a cylindrical tube oven, called a Tandoori, bakes amazing naan breads. There is also a regular fire pit over which meat can be hung and roasted, and an oven dug into an embankment—a project of whimsy I suspect. Throughout what I like to call, ‘The Tour of Ovens’, Paula’s passion for baking and wood-fired ovens is palpable, as is her intimate understanding of how for centuries our predecessors, from all corners of the globe, prepared and enjoyed food. For Paula, preparing foods of yester-year using historically accurate tools and ovens creates a sensory rich, immersion experience of the time—cooking, smelling, touching, and sampling what people did hundreds or thousands of years ago. “If you follow a recipe closely, you can actually taste what they tasted,” she reflects. Paula’s experience with these ovens, combined with an age-old, tried and true recipe collection is what led Paula to write Cooking with Fire.
Scenes from PineFest 2015
Classic form is demonstrated by a young apprentice baker intent upon his task as Paula enjoys his progress.
Paula is also a regular contributor to these pages, as well as Food Editor for eSS&SC. She carefully selects, prepares, and taste-tests each recipe and arranges the corresponding photo shoot with the same meticulous, mindful manner that she would approach an archeological dig. The magazine was the answer to ‘what next?’ when she left the plantation, and an opportunity to explore writing while keeping her favorite subject front and center: food! She says of her writing, “I had many years of practice, exchanging letters with some very smart, amusing friends while I travelled—or they did—and their talents for letter writing made me want to write better letters!” Paula loves the classics, enjoying the humor, and in very short order inspired me to reread them—once again as is her way, breathing life into a subject many might have previously regarded as dusty and dry. Pity I didn’t have her as an English or History teacher; I love having her as an eSS&SC colleague.
Today, Paula’s time is committed to writing and publishing, and she, along with a collective of artisans, has helped launch a new initiative to revitalize long forgotten trades and restoration arts. Their work is in museums and private collections, and their mission with Plymouth CRAFT is to restore literacy in the traditional arts and trades, keeping history alive and accessible in our colorful and diverse communities.
Before departing, I asked curiously, ‘What is your favorite kitchen ‘must-have’ while cooking?’ Fishing through her pockets she responded, “Without doubt it must be one of these,” pulling out a knife, “I can, in short order, fashion anything I might need.” Then she ponders, “Actually, I am usually engrossed in the acts of cooking or teaching or entertaining, and it is often Pret who saves the day with a quickly carved replacement for my mislaid or forgotten whisk or spatula—so I guess my ‘must have’ is Pret!” she laughs.
I loved my afternoon at Paula’s. Time seemed to stand still during my visit, I didn’t once check my watch nor was I aware of how many hours had passed. And it was not that I had stepped back in time visiting this food-loving, classic-reading historian, but rather the absence of many modern conveniences, the ghosts of many happy fireside gatherings that linger in her yard, and her authenticity and mindfulness that leave no room for the empty hurriedness with which we conduct our lives. Her far-reaching travels are many. Her conviction towards continued learning and her willingness to listen and engage make her very sociable and open-minded company. Paula is fun to be around, yet also a peer-renowned, valuable resource for her vast knowledge and understanding of food history, making her a veritable national treasure; a national treasure we have tucked down a little dirt lane in the back woods of Plymouth.
The one most frequently-cooked dish in my kitchen, fried rice is like snowflakes: always wonderful, but no two batches alike. In order to pull this out of your sleeve as an emergency instant dinner, you must merely have done the groundwork of putting away leftover rice, a day to a week before. (As such “emergencies” occur at least weekly at our house, I reflexively double the amount of rice I boil for any rice-based dinner.) The rest of the ingredients are either kitchen staples (oil or fat, fish sauce), or the products of a fridge-cleaning expedition (a scrap of pork chop, a leek, a quarter of a cabbage) or, in season, of a stroll in the garden (green onions, a single cucumber, a fistful of cilantro).
Pam Denholm is the owner of South Shore Organics, a romantic at heart who loves her job, and relishes the fact that people all over the South Shore are cooking and gathering to share meals, and hopes that at least occasionally, it’s around a fire.