At Cogswell’s Grant in Essex, Massachusetts, Caroline Craig’s cooking stirs memories of a life lived in service to a fabled family and their historic property.
One day in 1966, Al and Caroline Craig walked down the road to pick strawberries at Cogswell’s Grant, a 1600s-era farm, with early-18th-century buildings, at the end of Spring Street in Essex, Massachusetts; they met the property’s caretakers and became friendly with them. The farm was owned by Bertram and Nina Fletcher Little, Boston patricians who spent their 20th-century lives writing about, lecturing about, and collecting the treasures of 17th- and 18th-century America. In 1973, the caretakers were retiring, and the Littles were looking to hire. The Craigs jumped at the chance; the job called for them to live at the Grant all year round, to keep the farm going, and, when the Littles were in residence during the summer, to cook for their family. “When they found out that Al could cut hay and I could bake bread, we were in like Flynn,” Caroline recalls.
The house at Cogswell’s Grant was the stage for the Littles’ collection of artifacts and antiques, which grew as each year passed. They enjoyed decorating the house as if the 19th century had not yet arrived. In keeping with this fantasy, there was no modern kitchen in the main house, simply the original keeping room’s cavernous fireplace, with brick oven and cast-iron tools for cooking over an open fire. The Littles didn’t expect Caroline to cook in this primitive manner, however; instead, she and Al and their two children lived in the back ell, complete with an up-to-date kitchen where she prepared the Littles’ meals, delivering them to their dining room, hot and fragrant. The Littles loved to entertain and also had three children of their own, so Caroline was often cooking for quite a crowd. Every Friday she turned out 10 loaves of bread for the upcoming week.
Living this way, the two families developed a great fondness for each other. When the Littles both died in 1993, they had already arranged for Cogswell’s Grant to become one of Historic New England’s house museums, which it remains today. Caroline and Al still live there; mornings, Caroline often bakes up a pan of something sweet for the staff, whose offices are located in part of the Craigs’ ell.
On this day, the air is tinged with cinnamon; Caroline is enhancing her memories by baking up an old favorite, sticky buns. She moves like a dancer around her kitchen–mixing, kneading dough, washing up, sponging down the countertops, all one seamless motion. “I’m measuring only because you’re watching,” she tells me. “I don’t even own a set of measuring spoons.” She doesn’t own a timer, either. “My nose is my timer,” she says.
To her friends at the Grant, around Essex, and at her church, Caroline’s cooking is legendary. For a woman of 74, she has a great deal of energy. As she’s pulling the pan of sticky buns out of the oven, Jack Little, Bertram and Nina’s oldest son, arrives with his wife, Francoise. Now in his eighties, he grew up spending summers here and has eaten many a meal, many a snack, created by Caroline Craig. His smile reveals his pleasure in finding Caroline in the kitchen, filled with those old familiar aromas.
Jack and Francoise pull up chairs around the table, as if they’d never left the farm. It might seem to them miraculous that this food remains–the one living thing left in this museum house where, among other things, Jack’s childhood bedroom is on display. They gratefully accept Caroline’s fragrant and abundant hospitality. “Oh, that’s just right,” Jack says, savoring the plump, cinnamony bun. “Yes, yes.”
For more on the Cogswell’s Grant house museum, visit: historicnewengland.org