Half Crown Bake House: An Interview with Justin Cherry
In our fast-paced, computerized world, it’s easy to forget that not long ago, we did things very differently! Justin Cherry, owner and operator of Half Crown Bake House, is a chef that joyfully tethers the past to the present—the 18th century to be exact!
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Justin could be found running around historic sites with his parents. Little did he know that—years later—he would be demonstrating the colonial way of baking with a 2-ton clay oven in tow! He would go on to become a fellow at Mount Vernon, where he was able to study foodways; the social, economic and cultural impact of food on an economy. He’s tested many recipes in the Mount Vernon kitchen—including the cocktails of the era—much to his fellow classmates’ delight! Half Crown Bake House just celebrated its third anniversary, and Justin generously agreed to speak with me and talk all things bread, George Washington, and the unique insight chefs have into the past; making them some of the best historians around!
I’d love to know more about how you started your business, as well as what initially sparked your love of American history!
“My family has been actively doing living history since I was 4 years old. Growing up in Western Pennsylvania I was surrounded by Historic sites of the 18th century, especially The George Washington trail route he traveled in 1753. I helped open Husk Restaurant in 2010 in Charleston, and we used a lot of heritage grains and I fell in love with their stories. After that, I started a bread program at Husk using the grains, and the woodfire oven which was central to the kitchen. About 3 years ago I wanted to develop a business that could travel to historic sites, educate folks on grains and traditional baking methods, and be involved in the interpretation of that time period again.”
You went on to become a fellow at Mount Vernon. How did that come about?
“Half of what I do at Half Crown is historical research on grains; how people used them, where they were from, and where they were originally from before they got here. Foodways was a big part of Washington’s business, so the study of that super interests me because you can tell a lot about culture and history through the economics of how food systems run.”
“Washington had a very good one, because he had a farm, a mill, and later a distillery. He also had this commercial fishing business that was very complimentary to where he lived. I was interested in all that stuff, and I also like to eat and cook food, too! Glenn Roberts from Anson Mills said, ‘Hey, we’re tracking down these grains that Washington grew.’ And I was like, ‘Man, I should go see if I can do some research at Mount Vernon.’ They have a Research Fellowship Program which is super great.”
“It’s a lot of academic scholars, and I’m a chef! Taking that perspective, there’s a lot of things that scholars are going to overlook. They see food they’re looking at and ask ‘What was it?’ I’m thinking: ‘How did they make this? What are the ingredients? What kind of things did they use to make it in?'”
So, I applied and it’s great because you get to see actual documents that Washington signed, and things that he wrote. When you go for this fellowship, you live on property. You get to hang out with all these other scholars that come from all different walks of life, different backgrounds, and cultures—which is great!
How is bread baked the colonial way different from using a standard oven?
“Woodfired ovens bake on residual heat instead of directly, so not only does it not involve electricity or gas, but the process of heating the oven itself is different—completely with wood.”
Could you tell me a few of the most memorable interactions or moments you have experienced in your work at Half Crown Bakehouse?
“There are so many! When I started Half Crown Bake House, the idea was really to connect to people on an individual level, educating and interpreting traditional baking of the 18th century. I get up quite early (sometimes I bake all night!) and some of the most memorable times are in the quiet, calm mornings spent at places like Mount Vernon, Washington’s Crossing Park and Stratford Hall. It feels as if all time is suspended, and takes you back to the 18th century.”
“I was at Mount Vernon this past year for a new series of events in December, and I put my oven right up by the mansion—probably 200 yards away from Mount Vernon itself. We were packing up for the night and it was the night that Washington died, and it was actually the same time that he died—a little bit after 10pm. It was super weird. It was nice, but I was like, “Man, this is really eerie!’”
Why is it important to keep this historic way of baking alive?
“A good friend told me that historical interpretation is the last line of defense for the continuation of tradition. If no one continues to demonstrate and educate and pass the stories and knowledge on, how does it survive?”
You’re also known for your classic colonial cocktail recipes! Could you share a favorite? One that was perhaps enjoyed by General Washington himself?
“Attached is a favorite! It is an adaptation of a 1790s manuscript recipe from Westmoreland County Virginia, the county of the birthplace of George Washington.”
You also know and recite beautiful toasts that were given at the time. When we all make this drink at home, what should we say before taking the first sip?
“One of my favorites is from the fourth of July Celebration in Alexandria, Virginia 1796, GW left after 15 toasts but the 16th raised 9 cheers afterward:
‘To The President of the United States—May he ever enjoy the patriot’s best reward—The confidence, affection and gratitude of his Fellow-citizens.'”
If you’re in South Carolina, you can find Justin and his delicious bread (made with grain that dates back to George Washington’s farm) at the Sea Island Farmers Market on Saturdays! Any upcoming events will be posted on www.halfcrownbakehouse.com . Also—make sure to follow him on Instagram at @halfcrownbakehouse .
Don’t forget to keep an eye out for Justin’s upcoming book, too!
Virginia Peach Cordial Recipe
Serves 5-6 people
12 oz Peach Brandy Eau de Vie style
12 oz Unaged Rum
2 cups water
2 cups cane sugar
8 Peaches cut in half and seeded( Virginia peaches work Best)
Juice of 1 lemon
Large pitcher, Large mixing bowl, Strainer
Medium pot, Wooden spoon
1. Combine the peaches, sugar and lemon juice into a medium pot with the water, slowly cook on medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, and the peaches break down. Strain into a mixing bowl while hot, discarding the peach skins. Let this cool down in the fridge for about 2 hours.
2. Pour in the brandy and rum and mix with a wooden spoon. Pour this mixture back through the strainer and into a large pitcher. Serve chilled and enjoy!
Cheers! You didn’t think I wasn’t going to try the recipe, did you?
Desk of J. Dogood sends three cheers to all our readers, and a toast wishing you a happy and healthy year.