For my (32nd!) birthday this year, my parents signed me up for a hearth cooking class. They know me well—I've loved everything to do with old-timey foodways since I was a little girl. After a couple months of waiting, my class was held at last on this damp, overcast Saturday at the Major James Wilson Homestead, in rural Hebron, New York.
As my host, Sally, welcomed me into the homestead's warm, low-beamed, kitchen, it felt a bit like stepping back into the 1700s. The house was lit by candles, a blazing fire, and the dull, gray daylight filtering in from a small, bubbled glass window. Everywhere I looked, from floor to ceiling, there were useful, exquisitely handcrafted cooking tools: hand-carved butter molds, pewter dishes, ceramic crockery, cast iron herb-dryers, brass tea kettles, an extensive collection of delightfully mismatched collection of blue and white china.
After I drank a cup of tea and chatted with my fellow participants for a few minutes, the kind and enthusiastic Sally Brillon began our class. She started off by talking about the pots and pans we'd use for hearth cooking: a spider (a cast iron skillet with legs), a dutch oven, and many kettles and pots. We talked, too, about historical recipes, and what sorts of foods would traditionally be cooked over a hearth like hers.
After our brief introduction, we began cooking up a veritable feast, starting with a chicken. We rubbed it with butter, thyme and sage, and got it roasting in the "tin kitchen." This marvelous invention—one of the most difficult things for a tinsmith to make—allows you to rotate meat and collect its pan-juices for basting. There's even a small door in the back so you can check the chicken without turning the entire contraption around.
Once the chicken was roasting away, the kitchen became a flurry of activity as we we prepared the rest of the dishes for our feast. We kneaded bread dough, cooked cranberry sauce in a kettle over the hearth, peeled a basketful of apples, rolled out crust, and broke open a hubbard squash by bashing it against the kitchen's stone steps. We also learned how to make a "burner" on the hearth out of ash and coals. On this, we sautéed celery in a cast iron spider.
Besides all of the cooking going on, there was plenty of baking. I helped assemble an apple pie, and we baked it in a dutch oven, covering it with coals so it would be heated from all sides. Meanwhile, a squash casserole, a creamy corn pudding, a buttery dish of sage stuffing, and two loaves of bread were baked in the masonry oven adjacent to the fireplace.
When all that was left to do was wait for the food to be done baking, Sally sat us down and read to us from the diary of one of the Wilson men who had lived in the house in the 1800s. How fascinating it was to hear his perspective on the very kitchen in which we were cooking!
Finally, all of the food was ready. The aroma of fresh herbs and yeasty bread, butter and roasted chicken, all combined against the scent of woodsmoke, was simply intoxicating. We eagerly set a table with antique china dishes in the adjacent sitting room, under the stern gaze of several historical portraits. We then placed all the food on the long, wooden kitchen table for serving.
The food was unbelievably delicious. We washed everything down with cold apple cider, and finished off the meal with apple pie and slices of cheddar cheese. I have to say, Sally's hearth cooking class was one of my very favorite birthday presents of all time. Thanks, mom and dad! And thank you, Sally, for sharing your home and knowledge with us!