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April 13, 2022 Amanda Lange

What’s for Dinner?: Examining the Tools of Hearth Cooking

With the opening of the museum on Saturday April 16, Historic Deerfield staff are excited to be able to offer open hearth cooking demonstrations to museum visitors again. Demonstrations will be offered every Saturday (except during the month of August) at Hall Tavern, and they are included with the cost of general admission.  The museum’s events calendar includes additional information about the demonstrations and themes for the season.  This month’s blog post, originally published in the 2006/2007 edition of Historic Deerfield magazine, explores the types of cooking implements commonly used in the 18th and early 19th centuries when cooking over an open hearth.  Copies of past editions of Historic Deerfield magazine may be purchased online or in person at our museum store.  Members of Historic Deerfield also receive a complimentary subscription to the magazine.  To learn more about becoming a member, please visit our membership page.  

Generations of cooks have known the daily chore of putting food on the table for anxious mouths.  Today, we have little trouble readying and preparing food—even if the result might not be perfect.  Few modern American spend time butchering hogs, plucking feathers off chickens, grinding corn, or milking cows to make a meal.  A quick trip to the grocery store or corner market can enable even the most unskilled cook to appear competent.  Frozen dinners, ready-to-eat meals, and take-out pizza are easy—if unhealthy—solutions to that everyday question, “what’s for dinner?”  Modern kitchen conveniences like the microwave, crock pot, electric stove, or gas range also streamline the cooking process and enable us to quickly put a meal on the table.

Seasonal variety aside, 18th- and early 19th-century New England meals primarily consisted of salted meats and fish, boiled vegetables, and bread.  This diet was both high in saturated fats and lacking in essential vitamins.  In her childhood memoirs of her family in Northampton, Massachusetts, Anne Jean Lyman (b. 1815) recorded that “the breakfast was always simple but abundant,–tea and coffee, broiled fish or steak, bread, and some kind of pudding for the children, to be eaten with milk or cream.”  She then described the mid-day meal: “at one o’clock came dinner; always a large joint, roast or boiled, with plenty of vegetables and a few condiments…good bread and butter, and a plain pudding or pie.”  Supper was often a simple affair, usually consisting of leftovers, or according to the 1801 diary of Betsy Phelps of Litchfield, Connecticut, “after nine we had supper, which consisted of cider-soup—or toast and cider—a dish which my husband is particularly fond of.”  These examples and others can be found in Jane C. Nylander, Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home, 1760-1860 (New York, 1993).

Preparing meals in the 18th century was a tedious, time-consuming, dirty, and physically demanding job with few shortcuts and many specialized tools.  The creation of hearth cooking implements relied upon the skills of two different tradesmen: the founder and the blacksmith.  A founder used molten iron to cast pots and kettles in multipart molds made of sand.  The resulting products withstood extremes of heat and frequent use, but were often prone to cracking and shattering upon impact.  In the Hampshire Gazette of January 7, 1789, James Byers & Company, based in Springfield, Massachusetts, advertised a variety of implements made at their furnace: pots ranging in weight from 10 lb. to 37 lb., large and small bake pans, spiders, tea-kettles, and skillets.

The blacksmith specialized in wrought iron—that is hammering and bending heated iron rods and bars into useable pieces of household equipment.  Local Deerfield blacksmith and gunsmith John Partridge Bull (1731-1813) made and repaired a wide variety of iron kitchen implements for Ensign Joseph Barnard of Deerfield in 1772-1773.  Barnard had just completed the building of his large double-hipped roof house facing the town common, and he hired Bull to make the following implements for his kitchen hearth: one toasting iron, one gridiron, one flesh fork, one spit & hooks for scuers [skewers] and 9 scuers [skewers], scrimer [skimmer], slice [or peel], and tongs.  He also mended two andirons for Barnard.

The basic requirements for an 18th-century hearth included a pair of heavy andirons, particularly the large variety for a kitchen fireplace.  In addition to being cumbersome, they are also reasonably challenging to manufacture.  Fashioned in two parts from iron “stock,” the billet bars that hold the wood have one end peened through the front upright post and the other heated and bent to form the back leg.  The front post usually consisted of a single piece of iron.  Andirons could be fitted with spit hooks for roasting a shoulder of mutton, a breast of veal, or joint of beef.

The next hearth necessity was a suspension system for large pots and kettles.  The most inexpensive option, a green log called a lug pole, rested on a ledge built within each side of the fireplace.  Lug poles needed to be replaced fairly often before they burned out.  Injury and perhaps death could result from lug poles giving way—sending heavy iron pots of boiling food crashing to the floor.  Safer choices were iron lug poles or iron cranes fitted on a hinge that could be swung out toward the room so that the cook could inspect the contents of the pot.  Pot hooks, chains, or trammels allowed for variations in height, so that pots and kettles could be hung high or low in relation to the flames.

Most foods in the 18th century were either cooked over open flames, in front of the fire, or above discrete piles of coals removed from the fireplace onto the hearth.  Each of these styles of cooking has different implements associated with it.

Large cast iron pots were ideal for simmering stews and soups directly over the flames.  Round-bodied cooking pots, made with three legs and a bail handle, were suspended above the fire from a chain, crane, or trammel.  Many of these pots are equipped with tripod feet for stability on uneven surfaces and for dual use on the hearth.  Long-handled fry pans or hanging griddles could be used to cook meats, fish, and egg dishes quickly over the flaming heat.

In front of the fire, the simplest method for roasting meat was to suspend it from a sturdy string and give it a periodic twist.  But that method required a lot of minding and basting to keep the meat from drying out.  Metal spits would roast small game such as rabbit or fowl, such as chicken, pheasant, duck, and quail to perfection.  Spits were often rotated by hand; in commercial buildings like taverns they might be attached to a spit engine or clock jack.  Tin kitchens or reflector ovens, introduced in the mid-18th century, improved upon the spit.  This drum-shaped contraption had a hatch door opening at the top used for gaining visual access to the meat.  Created out of tin-coated sheet iron, the drum shape not only collected the heat, but also reflected it back on the roasting meat.  Usually equipped with a dripping pan, tin kitchens facilitated the periodic basting of the meat and the collection of precious fats for later household use.  With stale bread being a frequent problem, many early American cooks crisped bread in front of the hearth using rotating or hinged wrought iron toasters.

Delicate cooking could not be accomplished over a blazing fire, as controlling the heat was too difficult.  Small beds of glowing coals drawn from the fireplace and built as needed at various places on the hearth provided the cook with a degree of steady and controlled heat.  Cooking over coals utilized flat-bottomed vessels with tripod feet, or pots carefully set upon trivets.  A long-handled, three-legged skillet, also known as a spider or posnet, became a favorite implement for cooking over coals.  These pots were often made of bell metal—an alloy of about 80 parts copper and 20 parts tin—making them durable as well as great conductors of heat.  Eighteenth-century hearths usually contained an adjacent but separate brick-lined oven for the family’s baking needs.  With baking occurring just once a week, bake kettles (what we now call Dutch ovens) were extremely useful for baking pies, rolls, or biscuits without heating the oven.  A pile of coals under the kettle, with more coals filling the flanged lid, facilitated even cooking.

Teasing out the exact use of each of the different implements and utensils displayed on the kitchen hearths at Historic Deerfield can be a confusing business.  With the ample supply of hearth cooking implements in the museum’s houses, one might naturally assume that most early Americans owned a wide variety of metal cookware.  But according to Jane Nylander, some New England women began housekeeping with as little as a small kettle, a spider, and a long-handled spoon.  These cooking implements are silent reminders of the demanding task of meal preparation that early American women faced.  As much as I find the past fascinating, I’m grateful that I cook in the present!