Thursday, September 21, 2017

Mastering the Colonial Kitchen

During my hiatus from the grueling hot days of Arizona's summer sun, I traveled back in time to the open heart kitchens of our early colonial ancestors. Working in those kitchens was not for the faint at heart.  Your first task to master would be to understand fire. If you did not understand how fire operated then you would not be able to control the fire.

As the main cook in the kitchen you would rise early to prepare the fire.  You would know that hardwoods such as oak, sugar maple are the best woods to get a good burn going, one that generates an even and intense heat, as well as a good supply of hot coals. You need the hot coals for baking. In Colonial America finding the right wood was not a problem, we had an abundance.

The large iron bracket in the picture to your left is called a crane.  Cranes were used to maneuver  a variety of pots and pans within the controlled fire. The "S" hook placed on the crane would allow the cook to suspend pots over the fire and the hinged crane was used to swing the pots and pans off the fire safely. Stewing, simmering and boiling could be done using the crane but they also had frying pans with long handles and little legs called spider pans that could sit on the coals. If the pot did not have legs than they could use a trivet with legs to sit on the coals.  Some pots had an indent on the lids which was used to hold hot coals so that the pot itself turns into a small oven with heating elements on top and bottom.

Operating the fire correctly was certainly important for safety reasons but also the cook would understand that she needed a certain amount of coals for making bread in the oven.  The coals would be shoveled from the fireplace into the oven and the opening beneath the oven is a warming oven.  Sometime it could take up to 4 hours to ready the oven for bread making, but once the bricks were  hot enough than the ashes would be swept out and the bread placed in the oven using a flat shovel similar to what you see today in wood-fired pizza shops. They were no controls on the oven, so the cook would have to place her hand in the oven to check for readiness. These were very brave women. Scalding accidents were common and the threat of death by fire was always present.

Oh, and did I mention the cooks in the kitchen dressed in wool?  It sounds crazy, I know. Wool was known for its very low flammability rate. Wool naturally extinguishes itself and will singe rather than catch on fire. It will also not melt or stick to your skin like synthetics will.

One aspect about colonial living that we could benefit from mirroring is the fact that they didn't waste anything.  When the bread was done and the oven started loosing its heat, they would use it to dry out fruits and herbs.  And when the wood had turned to ashes, well, they used ashes to create lye which they used to make soap.  We talk about sustainability in today's world with catchy phrases like "reuse, recycle, reduce" but our founding mothers and fathers of colonial America lived it.
Colonial Revival Reconstruction
 The kitchen pictures above were taken at the Pennsbury Manor Estates in Bucks County, Pa. While William Penn's main seat of government was in Philadelphia, Pennsbury Manor  was Penn's "green country home" and sits on the bank of the Delaware River about 25 miles north of the city.  There is much to see and much to learn at the Pennsbury Manor.   If you are in the area, the Manor is well worth a visit. Please check the website to see the times of the tours as well as the fun events they have scheduled throughout the year.  I am one of the many volunteers at the Manor.  My role is that of a tour guide, so maybe I'll see you there.   



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