Hearth Cooking

Historic Hearth Cooking

  • The food our ancestors ate hasn’t changed substantially; only the methods of preparation are different!
  • Bake kettles, spiders, and trivets would all be placed over a bed of coals shoveled onto the hearth. For the bake kettle, coals would then also be shoveled onto the recessed lid, creating heat from above and below. Trivets would be used to support bowls or pans to heat or bake foodstuffs.
  • A fire would be lit directly inside the beehive oven and allowed to burn for about two hours. The coals are then shoveled out and the heat from the bricks does the baking. Since the heat lasts for awhile, items that bake quickly, such as pies and breads would be baked first, then items which bake more slowly, like beans, are put in.
  • Pies/puddings could be baked in either the bake kettle or the beehive oven. Breads and beans would be baked in the beehive oven.
  • Meat was often roasted in a reflector oven made of tin, earning it the name of “tin kitchen.”
  • Soups, stews, and chowders would be cooked directly over the flames by suspending the kettle from the crane with a trammel hook, which allows the cook to adjust the height above the flames.

What did they eat?

Ask: What do you like to eat / what are your favorite foods?

  • Similarities: Bread, cheese, meat (roasts, stews, bacon), vegetables, pies, cookies — pancakes!
  • Differences: People cooked foods they were familiar with. The majority of the population in this area came originally from Great Britain, so no pizza, pasta or French fries (but potatoes in other forms – mashed, boiled, fried). Tomatoes were considered poisonous and were unusual before about 1870. Ice cream was known, but uncommon due to lack of mechanical refrigeration.
  • Common myth: Hunting was not a major food source by the late 18th / early 19th Century – most land was cleared for farms. There is more wildlife in Holliston today than in 1816.

Where did it come from?

Ask: Did you go to the supermarket?

  • Most (but not all) food was grown or obtained locally. This is something we may be going back to (“buy local” movement, CSA (community-supported agriculture) movement). Has anyone visited a farm stand? Some foods that are common today (example: peanuts, peanut butter) might only be known in certain areas of the country where the crop grew. For example, wheat did not grow well in New England, so most bread was made with rye flour. Maple syrup (see pancakes) was made locally! Who has seen / heard about maple sugar being made? Maple trees provided a local source of sugar – can anyone think of another? (honey)
  • Many people were farmers but even tradesmen, professionals (doctors, lawyers, ministers, teachers, etc.) probably had a vegetable garden. Does anyone have a garden at home? Do you know someone who raises their own chickens?
  • What you didn’t grow yourself, you could trade for. Seafood, from Boston or another coastal community, for example.
  • Some luxuries were imported: oranges from Spain, lemons, pineapples and sugar from the Caribbean.

How was food preserved?

Ask: Did you go into the freezer and take out a frozen dinner? (this is a trick question – the answer is “sometimes…”)

  • Drying – some foods, including grains, some fruits and vegetables could be preserved by drying. Who here likes raisins or dried apples? Root vegetables could be buried in dry sand in a cool place like a cellar to help keep them fresh. Eggs by coating in lard and burying in ashes.
  • Smoking – meat could be hung in a smokehouse. Does anyone here like ham?
  • Salting – fish was often salted and dried. Meat could be packed in brine (salt water). Has anyone here had corned beef?
  • Pickling – all kinds of vegetables could be made into pickles, not just cucumbers. Eggs could be pickled.
  • Fermentation – anyone here like sauerkraut?
  • Preserving – fruit could be made into jam or jelly.
  • Cooling – Mechanical refrigeration in homes did not become common until the 1930s, but people knew how to keep food fresh using ice cut from ponds in the winter and stored underground, by using cold water from springs or brooks, and by freezing food in cold weather. This is the answer to the trick question – you could make a pie in cold weather, put it outside to freeze and then cook it later. “Later” just couldn’t be the middle of July!
  • Making the food into something else that kept longer – milk into cheese or butter, apples into apple cider!
  • Seasonality – Probably the most important difference about what people ate 200 years ago was that you ate a lot of what was available at the moment – peas and fresh greens and strawberries in the spring and early summer, more fresh vegetables in the summer as they came into season, meat in the fall when animals were slaughtered (because meat didn’t spoil as quickly in the cool fall temperatures and so the animals didn’t have to be fed and cared for all winter when food for them was relatively scarce) and preserved foods all winter. Was food ever scarce? (yes, occasionally) When? (spring). Any idea why?
  • Myth – there’s a story that people sometimes used spices to cover up the taste of food that was starting to spoil. Not really true – spices were expensive and were used to make good food better – not to make bad food edible. There were plenty of ways to keep food from spoiling – it might get a little boring at the end of the winter, but it wasn’t bad!

How was food prepared?

  • Most houses had a kitchen where food was prepared. In the north, (New England, New York) kitchens were inside the house. In the south (Virginia, the Carolinas) they were in separate buildings, sometimes connected to the main house by a porch or portico. Why do you think this would be?
  • The kitchen had a fireplace. Most had bake ovens. (Some, like this house, had two!) The kitchen fire would be started first thing in the morning, and would burn until all the day’s cooking was done (longer in winter!) In summer, cooking or anything else requiring a fire (like heating water for washing clothes) would be done early in the morning and the fire allowed to die out before the day got too hot.
  • Many of the utensils used for food preparation are similar to the ones we still use today. Bowls and spoons for measuring and mixing, knives for cutting and chopping, forks for toasting and jobs like beating eggs. However, there might not be as many – kitchens were more sparsely equipped, and many items had to serve more than one function. However, there were specialized tools as well – does anyone know what this is? (hold up sausage stuffer or the lemon squeezer)
  • Iron stoves existed but were not popular, partly because they were expensive but mostly because people were used to cooking on an open fire and habits changed slowly. Most food was cooked on the hearth. Soups and stews might be boiled over an open fire, so the fireplace would have a crane on which to hang a pot. But if the food was to be fried, or sautéed or cooked in a pan, it would be done on the hearth over a pile of coals in a pan with legs, sometimes called a spider. Why do you think it would be called a spider? What purpose did the legs serve, besides making sure the pan didn’t fall over? Has anyone here ever done something like this at home or when camping? (barbecue)
  • Baking (bread, pies, beans, cakes, cookies) was done in an oven. Ovens could be made out of brick (a bake oven), or tin or cast iron. With a brick oven, a fire was built inside and allowed to burn down, heating the bricks. Since this took longer than just lighting a fire in the fireplace, baking was usually only done once a week. Food would be prepared while the oven was heating. When the oven was hot enough, the food would be put inside with the items that needed to cook the longest going in first. As things finished cooking, they would be taken out. The last thing out might be something like a pot of baked beans, which would be left in overnight and would be warm for breakfast the next morning! Tin kitchens (also called reflector ovens) could be set on the hearth in front of a fire and used to roast meat, which could be turned on a spit. Your job might be to turn the spit! Bake kettles, now more commonly known as Dutch Ovens, were made out of iron. These would be set on a pile of coals on the hearth, and more coals heaped on top. They could be used to cook bread, or cake or cookies. You can still buy these to take camping.
  • One thing every kitchen did not have was a sink. Some did – although it might be made of stone or sheet iron and drained straight through a hole in the wall to the outside. Others just used a big wooden tub for washing dishes. Water came from a well in the yard, or sometimes from a pump or well inside the house. Hot water had to be heated on the fireplace.

Who Prepared the Food?

  • The women and girls in the household did most of the food preparation – including cooking the day’s meals and preserving food for later use. They also tended the vegetable gardens. Men and boys took care of planting and tending crops, as well as raising animals. They also cut and split the firewood used to heat the house as well as for cooking. When it came time to harvest, everyone helped!

How to Make Cornmeal Pancakes on the Hearth

  1. Preheat the spiders by placing in coals.
  2. Shovel out a small pile of coals onto hearth. Place the spider over this bed. (Do this early enough for the pan to be heated.)
  3. Call up 2 students at a time (as space allows).
  4. Have the child pour a small amount of batter into the pan (slightly bigger than a silver-dollar pancake). It works best if you spoon out a small amount and hand the spoon to the child (the children tend to spoon out too much batter).
  5. When pans are full (about 3 pancakes), tend the pancakes, turning them when bubbles appear.
  6. When the pancakes are done, put them on a paper plate. Someone (teacher, chaperone, etc.) should be available to put on syrup and deliver to the children.

Back to the Programs Page.
Revised May 2017