Lessons learned straight from the hearth

Cooking-class students stir up the past with antebellum-style recipes at Carroll farm museum

May 08, 2002|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A woman wearing a long, brown cotton dress is standing before an open hearth, stirring a cast-iron pot, when she suddenly jumps back and furiously shakes the skirt of her dress and long apron.

The men and women gathered around her watch, surprised. They don't see any smoke and didn't hear the telltale pop of sparks, but Patricia Reber did. And after a decade of cooking over the fire the way our foremothers did, Reber knows to take no chances.

"Catching fire [while cooking] was the second most prevalent way of dying back then for women," Reber says, as she stomps the floor to extinguish any errant sparks.

Reber's six students nod gravely. They're too busy peeling, chopping and mixing to take written notes.

But they file this fact in the back of their minds with the many others they are learning this spring morning at a traditional-arts class at the Carroll County Farm Museum.

During the four-hour class, they will prepare 10 Southern antebellum-style recipes using the simplest of cooking methods: a combination of cast-iron pots and fire.

The class will simmer a stew and vegetable side dishes over the flames, bake biscuits in a primitive oven using the fire's reflected heat, and bake pies and casseroles in cast-iron Dutch ovens placed near the fire and topped with hot coals.

It's raining outside, but the summer kitchen where the class works is cozy and inviting. The low-ceiling room was a wash house when the farm was a home for the county's paupers. Later, it became a summer kitchen, where meals were cooked over an open hearth, which still dominates one wall.

Antique and reproductions of antique ladles, spatulas and other utensils hang on the whitewashed walls and from the exposed wood beams in the ceiling. A massive iron stove holds court in one corner. It and the "beehive" ovens built into the wall of the hearth no longer work.

Because the kitchen is designed for historic display rather than actual use, Reber and her students must maneuver around a variety of items, including an old wringer washer and some oversized copper kettles, as well as a large modern cooler and a 20-gallon jug. The last two items are there because 21st-century health codes still need to be met, hence the cooler to keep ingredients cold and the jug for clean water.

Though hearth cooking is considered something of a lost art today, cooking over a fire was once the only way to make a meal. Girls began helping in the kitchen practically as toddlers. Boys chopped wood and hauled water.

Farm Museum volunteers have been demonstrating the once-mandatory life-survival skills for years. Deluged with visitor requests, administrators began offering hearth cooking as part of the museum's traditional-arts classes.

Reber became the museum's cooking instructor five years ago, having honed her skills in classes she took in Georgia. She says she was drawn to the craft by her interest in cooking and in history.

"It's hard work, but it's a lot of fun," Reber says. "It's like doing something you've only seen in movies."

This morning Reber is teaching a Pennsylvania couple who have an open hearth in their home, a furniture maker who loves to cook, a woman in authentic period dress who participates in Civil War reenactments, a woman who once ran her own catering business and a woman who teaches open-fire cooking to Boy Scout leaders.

Previous students have included volunteers and staff from other museums as well as a man who wanted to be able to fend for himself in case there was a national emergency, Reber says.

Reber, who keeps the classes small, stresses hands-on instruction. She builds the fire, brings ingredients and provides recipes, which she finds in antique cookbooks and cookbooks from historic sites like Williamsburg, Va., and Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.

But for the most part, it's the students who swing the heavy iron "arms" in and out of the fire, shovel hot coals on top of the clunky cast-iron Dutch ovens, prepare the dishes and clean up.

"I can feel my biceps working here," jokes Carolanne Holnicker, as she smashes a big bowl of just-boiled potatoes with a hand-held potato masher.

Although Reber says nearly any recipe can be adapted to hearth cooking, today's menu features dishes dating from the 17th and 18th centuries: Brunswick stew, cheese grits, Georgia squash casserole, hopping John(black-eyed peas), "bubble and squeak" (fried cabbage and potatoes), corn "oysters" (fritters) and apple "slump" (an early version of apple dumplings).

As the students work, their faces take on a rosy glow. Two hours into the class, the iron arms hanging over the flames are filled, and Dutch ovens crowd the floor. There are more dishes to be cooked than pots to cook them in, so Reber gently urges her charges along. Movement is a bit frenetic as hot dishes are pulled away from the fire and replaced by new ones.

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