Secrets of the hearth Anne Arundel County: Fans of nation's true pastime should try it the old-fashioned way

September 29, 1995

COMPARED TO colonial times, today's cooks have it relatively easy. Maryland may have lost a plentiful supply of many once-indigenous herbs and animals -- certainly the famed terrapin is nearly impossible to find -- but at least contemporary cooks do not have to worry about cooking at an open hearth. If you insist, however, you can.

Mary Sue Pagan Latini, of Ferndale, has authored an intriguing 159-page book, "At the Hearth: Early American Recipes," which should be available at many book stores and museum shops from the American Literary Press Inc. for $14.95. (Mercifully, she suggests ways to use a conventional oven instead of an open hearth to those who may be short on skills or do not have a really old house.)

"Cooking at the hearth is a challenge. You have to learn how to control the fire rather than it controlling you," Ms. Latini says. (Even backyard barbequers can relate to that.) She started experimenting with old-time cooking after retiring from an 18-year career as a U.S. Naval Academy management analyst.

Everything from roasted chicken and casseroles to cakes can be prepared at a hearth, she says. Those who doubt her can see her in action many weekends at the 1840 House of the Baltimore City Life Museum, where she offers workshops on colonial cooking.

Baseball may still hold the title as "America's pastime," but cooking is becoming this nation's favorite hobby. Just think of all the cooking shows that dominate the weekend TV grid on public television and many cable channels. The name of the game in cooking -- as in other ventures -- is to find an undiscovered niche. Perhaps Mrs. Latini is onto something.

Colonial-era Marylanders had to be inventive and take advantage of what was available. "They had to salt, dry, pickle or smoke their food. Canning hadn't come in then," Mrs. Latini explains. The rich were protected from the strain of the kitchen because they had servants or slaves. When Annapolis celebrated its first 50 years as Maryland's capital, the colonists "sat on carved chairs, at quaint tables, amid piles of ancestral silverware and drank punch out of costly bowls from Japan, or sipped Madeira," while servants carried food from hearths.

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