In 2012, I somehow found that Louisa County was offering a class in Open Hearth Cooking. It was in the Parks and Rec brochure, but it was run by the Louisa County Historical Society. In my excitement, I told my students about it and several were interested in it! Three of the young women in my morning class signed up. One was then unable to go, but Brittany, Tiara and I headed off to Louisa one Saturday in February.
Elaine met us at Brackett’s Farm, dressed in early 19th century style clothing. We were to cook in a small building some yards from the ‘big’ house. This kitchen building was was small, maybe 20′ x 15′. The enormous fireplace was on the short end of the structure. The opposite end had doors on the long sides that would provide ventilation in warm weather. She had brought cast iron of all sorts, bowls, utensils, and ingredients for us to cook. The class was limited to ten, but without Lane, we only had 9. Elaine also had experienced helpers, another cooking instructor and a fellow who was there to help get the fires going.
Yes, fireS. The fireplace was as wide as two ‘regular’ fireplaces and had two set of andirons for two fires to produce the coals we would use to cook. It was nearly as tall as I am. The heavy wooden mantel was at the level of my head. Elaine got us started on preparing the food while the fires were getting to the point that they would produce the coals we needed. One of the first things we prepared was a pork loin. We trussed it up in twine to hang it in the corner of the fireplace. I knew that meat was hung over fires to roast, but what I didn’t know was that part of the process is the radiant heat from the bricks. For that reason, the pork was hung not over the fire, but in the corner.
Another item that we prepared early was the apple pie. We peeled and sliced apples and made the pie crust. Brittany and Tiara used the extra dough to embellish the top of the pie with leaf shapes. The others were impressed and it was beautiful. We also churned butter and used the buttermilk in the biscuit recipe. It was quite cold that day, but stepping outside into the fresh air or sitting in the doorway churning the butter was a a relief after the heat of the kitchen. Both the pie and the biscuits were to be baked in a Dutch oven. Dutch ovens sometimes seem like they are only used for soups or stews, but they are really made to be used as ovens. They are large cast iron pots with a heavy lid. Early lids were just regular sloped lids, but sometime in early American history, they started to have a lip around the edge to help hold the coals in place. The story is that Jefferson created that innovation, but I need to find corroboration. To allow air circulation in the oven as you have in a modern oven, we place a trivet in the bottom to raise the pie pan up. Elaine showed us that if you don’t have a trivet, you can achieve the same thing with three or four rocks of approximately the same size. We placed the Dutch oven on some coals and added coals on top of the lid too.
We also sliced up cabbage and radishes to be boiled. Not together. They were boiled in large metal pots (tin? steel?) that were hung over the fire. The height of the pot over the fire can be adjusted with the ‘S’ hooks. More hooks, closer to the fire. Fewer hooks, less hear further from the fire. We used some of the butter we churned on the radishes, but we had a recipe to make creamed cabbage. I melted butter in a cast iron skillet and added flour to make a paste, then we added the cream. After it had thickened a bit, we added the drained cabbage and coated it in the sauce.
Then we sat down together to eat. Pork, biscuits, creamed cabbage, buttered radishes, and apple pie.
As we finished and began our drive home, it began to snow.