Open Hearth Cooking- Practicing what I learned

I knew that while I had involved students in my two trips to Louisa County for Open Hearth Cooking classes, I wanted more students to get the experience.  When I had been putting together the Material Culture Resource Collection for use in the classroom, I bought some gear for doing so- Dutch ovens, trivets, tripod.  I even bought a firebowl and patio tiles so I wouldn’t damage whatever location I ended up using.

I had heard that there was a nearby county park related to our Parham Road Campus, so I went looking.  I found that the park is not only attached to the campus, but that you can only get to it through our campus.  It has a baseball field, football field, and basketball courts, but the important thing for me was one lone metal-box-on-a-stick grill.  That meant that fire was permitted there!  I had dreaded the thought of hoops and hoops and hoops I would likely have to go through to have fire on campus, but this is a county park that allowed fire!  

I checked the signs, I read the rules, I looked up the website.  I could do this!

I contacted Sophia and asked her if she wanted to be my partner-in-crime.  She agreed and we began to plan what we would try to cook! I decided that using some cheap refrigerator biscuits could be a way to gauge the heat of our fire/coals.  Sophia was excited about doing corn pudding, so I had her look up a recipe.  We did an apple pie too- all store bought ingredients because we were practicing the fire part more than the recipe part!

 I had bought the firebowl and patio tiles, but because of various circumstances, they would be difficult to get to and transport.  So I bought a great big ceramic pot for my coals and some smaller tiles instead.  I also bought the natural hardwood charcoal Danny told me about as a shortcut. 

We picked a day and got all the equipment together- I wanted to be careful enough that there would be no question of safety.  I brought a fire extinguisher too!  We started the fire in the ceramic pot and thought the coals were ready.  We put the first batch of biscuits in the small cake pan and popped it into the Dutch oven on top of the trivet. And we waited…not so patiently.  We thought they had been in long enough but when we checked them, they were starting to dry, but not really cook or brown.  We realized our coals were not nearly hot enough and we had been impatient.  

We waited and chatted and waited some more.  It was hot out.  We heard a noise and looked around to see Sophia’s cell phone fly off of the picnic table we were using!  What the heck? It turns out that the heat had caused the top of the refrigerator biscuit tube and it sent the phone flying!

So then we tried a second batch of biscuits.  These went much better!  In about the same amount of time you would have them in your oven at home, they came out puffed up and browned!  Yum!  While those were cooking, we put together the corn pudding.  It made so much we had to put it in two of the cake pans.  I had only brought pot holders from home and getting down in the oven to pull out the biscuits was touch and go.  I only burned myself once, but it was enough to teach me that I needed something more- like a mitt and not just a pot holder!

I used a modern lid lifter rather than the 19th century one we had used in class.  I like it a great deal better because it feels so much more stable than the period one.  With the modern one, I feel confident that I’m not going to drop it or have it tilt and dump ashes into the food. That was part of what I needed to learn to feel ready to show this to students on my own.

Back to Louisa for more open hearth cooking

I had so much fun learning to cook at Louisa County’s Open Hearth Cooking class in 2012, I made sure to look for it in 2013!  My students gained a great deal from it as well.  Even students who didn’t go ended up with some great insights after the young ladies who went reported back to the class.  My favorite thought that came out of the class discussion was that people spent so much more time interacting with family because of the enormous amount of time spent cooking in tiny spaces.

So I began to organize another trip.  This time, the class in March fit better in my schedule. Sophia wanted to go- and her sister, Bridgette, who had been in my class previously.  Adam, also in US II that semester, who is a baker went as well.  Our fourth was Browning from my Civil War class.

Because it was spring, the menu was somewhat different from my previous experience.  We were going to do the pork loin again, but along with it we were going to make Martha Washington’s recipe for chicken fricassee.  We also did apple pie and biscuits again, but the veggies changed.  We boiled potatoes, maybe with onion?  We had a salad of early spring greens. The salad dressing was from the 19th century cookbook of the woman who lived just across the field from the house where we were cooking.

I had experience cooking in general and had helped with the cooking on the previous occasion, so this time my goal was to work and observe more of the fire management.  Elaine also showed us how to use flint and steel to create sparks.  We all took turns and it is harder than you might think!  I found it took kind of a flick of the wrist rather than an even stroke.  We used the sparks from the flint and steel to  light something called charcloth.  Charcloth is small bit of cotton that have been carbonized by putting them in a tin canister with a hole in it and throwing it in a fire.  The cloth doesn’t burn up, but it goes black and flaky.  The sparks catch on the charcloth and you slowly coax it to flame by breathing on it. Then it could be used to start the fire.

Unlike my first experience, the weather was warm and sunny.  That first occasion, we  had pulled up chairs and squished a bit, but ate together in the warm kitchen on that cold day.  This time, however, we pulled the benches out back and ate on our laps in the sunshine.  While it was lovely, I did miss the feeling of camaraderie that we had around the table.  

With this second class, I began to feel more confident that I could do some of this kind of cooking on my own and I began to plan how I might share that with my students and others.

Stay tuned!