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Vintage chef: Local baker, historian recreating Victorian recipes for national park

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Mark Bridge's twin passions — baking and history — are happily melding together.

His latest project involves translating Victorian-era recipes into recognizable dishes for today's cook.

A folk singer and historical reenactor, Bridge now may add "culinary historian" to his list of vocations.

The National Park Service asked Bridge for his historical interpretation of handwritten recipes by Augusta Kohrs, wife of "Montana's Cattle King."

"They're typical of Victorian recipes, where all they listed were the ingredients. That's it," Bridge explains. "Then it's compounded by the fact most of them are written in English, but a few are in Old German. And plus, it's her scrawling handwriting."

Born in Hamburg, Germany, Augusta Kruse immigrated to Iowa in 1866. At 18, she married cattle baron Conrad Kohrs and moved to a sumptuously furnished ranch near Deer Lodge, Montana.

"I think what makes it interesting, when you think of ranches or pioneers, you think of the covered wagon, the little sod house," Bridge said. "Well, the ranch house, at that time, was the biggest house in the Montana Territory. You don't think of someone like Augusta making this miserable trip out to Montana and wintering in a 7,900-square-foot mansion in Helena given to her as a wedding gift. It's a different kind of pioneering. It was a different type of pioneer woman."

The ranch's backstory

Established by a Canadian fur trader and expanded by Kohrs in the 1870s, Grant-Kohrs Ranch was once the headquarters of a 10 million-acre cattle empire. At the height of the ranch's growth, it sprawled over four states and two Canadian provinces.

Today, it is a national historic site.

"When Conrad Kohrs went out to Montana, it was the typical immigrant story," Bridge said, having researched everything he could find about Kohrs for the cookbook project.

Lured by the gold rush, Conrad, at 15, left the province of Holstein, which was in the possession of Denmark at the time. Kohrs considered himself German. He arrived in Montana on foot with only his clothes and bedroll.

Realizing he would profit by selling goods to gold miners, Conrad began as a butcher. Then he raised beef to supply his butcher shops. In time, Kohrs shipped over 10,000 head of cattle each year to Chicago stockyards.

Texas Longhorn cattle didn't adapt well to northern ranches, so Kohrs was responsible for mixing breeds to create a hardier variety. He became known as "the father of modern ranching."

"He was best buddies with Teddy Roosevelt," said Bridge.

Until they were situated with a housekeeper and staff, Augusta did all the cooking for the ranch hands.

"This collection of recipes she had handwritten for the sake of constancy as new housekeepers came in, plus she loved to bake and cook herself. This was the ranch cookbook she had compiled over the years with favorite recipes. That is what I have been deciphering," Bridge said.

The National Park Service requested that Bridge interpret Augusta's pies, cakes, cookies, puddings for its first publication. The restored cookbook will be an in-house publication, replete with Bridge's stunning food photos, cooking instructions and historical sidebars.

"It'll end up being about 50 recipes," he said.

Baking bliss

Over the past several months, Bridge has been testing and tinkering with Augusta's original recipes, teasing out the proper cooking methods.

"I have a collection of Victorian cookbooks, so in a lot of cases I could go back to those," he said.

"Cookbooks back then were way different than ours, where we have step-by-step everything."

He then photographed and identified each cake, pie, cookie or pastry in mouth-watering detail.

Thus far, he has made 42 of her recipes.

Some ingredients typically used in Germany during the mid-1800s — like heartsbane and potash — Bridge had to replace with modern-day leavening agents, like baking powder and baking soda.

"But you have no idea how much to put in," he said.

Yeast and flour were different in the late 1800s as well.

Online translations of Augusta's Old German proved unhelpful: One translation came back as "mayfly pudding."

"And I know that can be right," Bridge said, laughing.

He's hoping to enlist the help of German speakers at Concordia Language Village.

"You can tell she loved chocolate. There's a lot of chocolate recipes."

One recipe, in particular, stood out.

"The Mahogany Cake was just amazing. It's just a really, really chocolatey cake that has a little bit of coffee in it," he said.

Sometimes he had to determine which frosting to put on her cake recipe, if none was provided.

Bridge's baked goods are created with all natural ingredients like butter, cream, eggs, real vanilla, fresh fruit and high-quality flour.

When cooking with old recipes, he uses utensils from the same time period as well. An antique dealer and collector, Bridge specializes in culinary antiques.

"I often run into recipes in Victorian cookbooks that call for measures like a coffee cup or a teacup full. I have a beautiful, old measuring pitcher that actually has those measures imprinted in its sides," Bridge writes on his blog (www.thecottagebaker.net). "It ends up that a coffee cup is our modern-day, 8-ounce cup and a teacup is our modern-day 1/2 cup."

Like recipes, cooking tools and utensils reflect a bygone era.

An 1887 cookbook recommends an assortment of kettles, griddles, bread boxes, cake boxes, tin pails, skimmers, steamers, molds, canisters, stone jars, tin basins and a meat saw as "necessary for the kitchen" and "quite an aid to young housekeepers."

"It looks like you would need a pantry the size of a barn," jokes Bridge.

One of Augusta recipes says "to Dover the eggs."

Dover egg beaters were such a popular brand, it actually became a verb, explains Bridge.

He owns a Dover egg beater — and prefers it over an electric one.

"Everything I do is from the 1800s. I was born in the wrong century, that's the whole problem," he says.

Baking has been a lifelong passion, especially the consuming part, he says.

Bridge is a state-registered cottage baker and a certified food manager, with over 40 years of experience in the restaurant business. He trained online through the Escoffier International Culinary Academy. He currently works as a pastry chef at The Good Life.

Growing up, Bridge's family shared a love of history.

"We were one of those nerdy families. My sister's the same way. As kids, we couldn't wait to go through the next historical home. We went through way more museums than we did theme parks or Disney," he recalled.

Bridge feels fortunate to be involved with a historic site.

"It's really fun when you love history to have things fall into place," he said.

He will retain rights to his heritage series of Augusta's desserts.

Bridge hopes to visit the Grant-Kohrs Ranch and its museum, which houses 32,000 artifacts, this fall. Augusta's newly updated cookbook will be available in the gift shop.

"Augusta has become a friend. I would love to be able to go back in time to about 1890 and sit on the screened porch there at Kohrs Ranch and drink coffee and have cookies with her."

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