Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Colonial Kitchen

My latest novel will be set at the dawn of the American War for Independence and a great deal of the action will take place in the home of the protagonists. We all know that the kitchen is the heart of any home, and it was no different in the 18th century, so I have been doing a little research to make my setting as accurate as possible.

The greatest differences in the style of fireplaces and hearths in this era were dependent on wealth more than cultural or geographic variation. The wealthy might have a separate kitchen where the fireplace could be built up to eight or ten feet wide with a cast iron fire back to protect the hearth from the extreme heat. Contrary to popular imagination, there was not often a giant, roaring fire set in these huge fireplaces. Instead, multiple, small fires of varying intensities would be lit and utilized rather like multiple burners on a modern stove. These fires could be built on andirons or grates. A metal crane would have been used and, with no expenses spared, could have swung on an arm toward or away from the fire, held multiple cauldrons, and raised and lowered them to various settings. A small army of servants or slaves would have attended an array of copper, brass, and iron cauldrons, fry pans, dutch ovens, spits, roasters and even waffle irons.

It was not unusual in this era for all cooking to be done over fire, though separate ovens were sometimes built, particularly in these wealthy homes. Ovens were beehive shaped and constructed beside or below the main fireplace. When beside the fireplace, there was sometimes space to build in a warming oven beneath the baking oven. The oven door could be wood alone or wood backed with metal. These ovens were utilized by first lighting a fire inside until the desired temperature was reached, then scraping out the coals, quickly mopping out the ashes, and then placing the food to be baked inside. This process could take anywhere from one to three hours. A clever cook could use the oven to cook multiple things requiring different temperatures by arranging the order of the items to be baked. In other words, one might start off with a crusty loaf of bread requiring high heat, followed by pie needing medium heat, and finally a crock of baked beans could be made with the residual heat. Here is a great video on baking bread in this style of oven, although this particular oven is outdoors.

My characters are a couple of young farmers who have fallen on hard times, so like most people of their position in this era will not have an actual "kitchen". Their home consists of two rooms: a bedroom and an "everything else room". It is in this main room that the food preparation will take place (along with things like emergency surgeries, gun running, and spying... but never mind about that.)

The fire was all important, cooking all meals and warming the house, so for poor people, the fireplace, hearth, table, and shelving could make up half or more of the entire house. They burned any and all wood available to them. In these houses, the cook would not have had access to a plethora of cooking accessories. Instead, a single "lug pole" (a pole cut out of green wood and used in place of a crane to hang pots) and perhaps a skillet, cauldron, kettle, and Dutch oven would have made do if you were lucky. In the south, corn cakes might be baked on the iron end of a hoe and, therefore, called hoecakes. In the north, they were baked on wooden bannock boards and called bannock cakes. You can also see in the painting below a hanging rack which was essential for hanging freshly butchered meat.

If you are wondering if hanging your heavy cauldron from a wood pole over a hot fire, baking your cakes on wooden boards, and having a wooden door to your oven might be a little dangerous, the answer is yes. The lug pole sometimes came crashing down, cauldron, hot soup and all. The bannock boards did not last long and might catch fire if the cook was not watching. You could soak your oven door in water before baking if you were fortunate enough to have the available water and container to do so, but you didn't count on it lasting long. And yes, skirts did occasionally catch fire, although the natural linen and woolen fibers of the period would usually smolder rather than catch flame and the smell would alert their wearer to the danger before any serious damage was done.

The upside to all of this? Food probably tasted better. It was very interesting to hear Ruth Goodman explain her trials and tribulations with a "new and improved" coal cook stove in Edwardian Farm after watching her cook over open fires and smoldering coals for Tales from the Green Valley and Tudor Monastery Farm. Her explanation was that while wood smoke tastes amazing and you almost want to encourage it to get into your food, coal smoke is disgusting and must be kept from the food at all costs. To put is simply, imagine eating barbecue all year every year.

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