Turn back the clock: cooking as it really was

Visitors to a restored Massachusetts outpost learn how challenging meal preparation could be in 1774

It's a three-day horseback ride to Boston; New York and Albany are a riverboat's journey away. In this village of 300, rumors of revolution are brewing. But this morning, in a low-ceilinged house at the northernmost outpost of the Connecticut River Valley, the livestock are fed and dawn is breaking. It's 1774 - and time to begin the noonday meal.

Dressed in a green-checked apron and an ankle-length red wool petticoat, Susan McGowan, master guide for Historic Deerfield, goes to work cracking eggs, ladling flour, pulverizing mace with her mortar and pestle, and, every so often, giving the burning wood in the floor-to-ceiling brick oven a gentle nudge with one brown-booted toe.

At Deerfield, a restored frontier outpost of the 17th century, this is a peek into the art and mystery of housewifery, one in a series of public cooking demonstrations on how to use the open hearth.

There are no measuring spoons, no clocks to time the meal, and for "intuitive" dishes like bread, soups, and winter stews, no "recipes" to explain what to do. Pots and dishes - vessels, as Ms. McGowan calls them - are scarce. For the meat pies of winter, a tough crust doubles as a pan - and dozens of pies rest on shelves and under beds in cold upstairs rooms, with children and cats (called "mousers") fending off rodents.

Before she slides bread into the cavernous bake oven, the bricks turn from dark red to black - as charcoal from the burning wood accumulates- and red again, as the fire's heat burns through. The oven gets to about 500 degrees before McGowan rakes it out - a cook's messiest, hottest job - and sweeps the bricks with water to create a clean, steamy space, then slips bread into the "falling oven," to cook as the temperature slowly drops.

On this winter morning, two loaves of three-grain bread are rising in the oven, and wood crackles on the open hearth. Chicken is stuffed with bread, butter, and sage, then skewered in a rotisserie-like "reflecting oven" beside the fire; beef soup and cranberries bubble in cast-iron pots; and a buttery, currant-filled poundcake rests beside them, perched over hot coals.

McGowan, who has worked at Deerfield since 1977, is a firm believer in the beauty of "process," and she's shocked at how estranged many children are from the realities of life from scratch. When a group of Williams College students visited, they declared their favorite food was "takeout"; when elementary-school children come, they're dazzled at the "magic" of cooking - and often frightened to see an indoor fire for the first time in their urban lives.

The hearty breakfasts of yore that we imagine - oatmeal, heaps of eggs, and bacon - didn't exist, as Deerfield conveys in a class called "Pie for Breakfast." After a hunk of bread, a mug of cider, and a chilly trip outside to feed livestock in the snow, you'd grab a slice of pie or a bowl of stew - whatever was left from the day before.

Like those elusive breakfasts, our notion of families bonding over lavish candlelit meals may be more nostalgia than fact. "The stereotypical idea of people all sitting down together to feast ... certainly didn't happen all the time," McGowan says. For noonday "supper," children trooped home from school and men lumbered in from the fields. But for morning and evening snacks, McGowan says, it was leftovers.

There was no fuss over "courses," no separation of dessert: Berry pie was a perfectly acceptable precursor to - or substitution for - beef and greens.

The meals were casual in style, perhaps, but not in substance: Between chopping, plowing, and household chores, men and women needed about 5,000 calories a day - and the main criteria for cooking was quantity, not quality.

Despite the chilling drudgery of winter, it could be an easier time for women, as the fire offered a toasty refuge from snow and frigid temperatures. Also, family members were likely to linger in the kitchen. But that didn't minimize work. Though men's tasks slowed in winter, women's work was constant. "If someone had asked an 18th-century woman if she liked to cook," says McGowan with a laugh, "she wouldn't have known what to say."

Though dramatic stories of women stumbling into open fires are mostly myth, singed hair was a constant problem. Arms grew bald with the heat of hearth cooking; to avoid the same outcome on the head, and to stay modest, women wore caps constantly, which kept hair clean and protected - and hidden, in an era when hair-washing was a seasonal (instead of a daily) chore.

Bad wood made for cross cooks: Wet logs sizzled and spat as they produced little heat and kept hungry children waiting. And on top of the chore of cooking came the challenge of seasons, the puzzle of "preparing a meal that's tempting and nutritious in March, when nature has shut everything down," McGowan says.

For a frazzled homemaker, the no-fuss equivalent of today's mac-and-cheese was a big bread pudding, a one-dish dinner whipped up from stale bread and milk. And when hard days, or hard feelings, made cooking especially onerous, "Bread certainly was a good way to vent anger," with mounds of dough that were better for the pounding.

As a culinary scolding to an ungrateful family, or a reminder of the depths to which careless cooking could sink, a woman might serve her family plain fatback, or corn bread with dreaded salt pork and beans.

Above her desk at the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, where she's director of academic programs, McGowan has hung a saying: "Nostalgia without history is a decorative fraud."

"I get so many people who have that nostalgia," she says. "People who come in and say, 'It smells so good; it's so pretty; it must make you so happy' - and I try to give them the real picture. The romance is in their eyes, but she[the homemaker] probably just wanted to get done - and sit down."

• Historic Deerfield offers open-hearth cooking demonstrations most Saturdays year-round and interactive cooking classes through March 30. For more information, call (413) 774-5581, or see www.historic-deerfield.org.

Mrs. Pearce's tasty Vinegar Pudding

IWith their faces crinkling at the very name "vinegar pudding," most people in our taste test hesitated to try this delicacy. But when they did, response was enthusiastic - and surprised. It's a dense, smooth, citrusy treat - almost like the base of lemon-meringue pie - with a gentle tang.

10 egg yolks

1-1/2 cups sugar

1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, softened

3 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground mace

Peel of 1 orange, grated

1/4 cup vinegar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Beat all ingredients together and bake the pudding in a greased 8-inch-square baking dish until set, about 40 minutes. Let cool before serving. Serves 12. (This recipe is circa 1810.)

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