Over an open fire. At Randall's, authentic 18th-century fare means extraordinary hearth-cooked meals

IN this era of high-tech kitchens complete with microwaves and Cuisinarts, you don't expect a gourmet meal cooked in the fireplace. But at Randall's Ordinary in North Stonington, Conn., Bill and Cindy Clark serve hearth-cooked dinners every night. At their inn, the Clarks serve 18th-century fare in an evening that is part theater, part entertainment, and part dinner. Dressed in authentic 18th-century costume, the Clarks also use 18th-century recipes and 18th-century antique cooking utensils, painstakingly collected over many years. They don't even own a microwave. Their inn, a 17th-century farmhouse, was home for 200 years to the Randall family, and was rebuilt several times during the 18th century. Now it is extensively furnished with 18th-century antiques.

On a recent evening, a fire blazed cheerily as a goose roasted in a reflector oven set on the hearth. Though outside the windows it was black and chill, the kitchen was toasty warm, romantically lighted with antique candelabra.

Cindy Clark, dressed in a simple white chemise, apron, and floor-length skirt, knelt to tend a steaming iron kettle of country onion soup. The corn bread was done, and she was preparing to cook new potatoes with parsley, and Iroquois squash - zucchini with scallions, dill, and honey. Later she would broil lamb chops and swordfish steaks to order, and cook the apple crisp dessert.

Her husband, Bill, wearing a white shirt and knee breeches with white stockings, ushered diners into the kitchen to catch a glimpse of the proceedings. Guests buzzed about, admiring Cindy's technique and the kitchen's heavy ceiling beams and wide planked floors. There were murmurs of ``Fantastic!'' and ``Great!'' Cindy passed around a wooden bowl of popcorn cooked over the fire in a 19th-century popper. The popcorn had scarcely a burned kernel.

As the guests returned to the candlelit dining room, they were clearly already in an 18th-century mood, with modern-day cares forgotten. With only one dinner seating, guests can relax all evening. A few chose a long wooden table right in front of the kitchen fireplace, for a ringside seat. ``People enjoy seeing the equipment used; it's so unusual to them to see it done,'' Cindy says. Until they really see it, they're often suspicious that the food is actually cooked in a ``real'' kitchen.

The Clarks have been cooking in the fireplace for almost 20 years, starting with private parties for friends at their former New York home, and perfecting their technique over time. In New York, they also taught hearth cooking.

What brought the Clarks to begin serving hearth-cooked meals to the public was a strong love of the 18th century. They started collecting antiques soon after they married, and later restored and lived in 18th-century houses in New York and Connecticut. ``The fireplaces really fascinated us, the idea of the fireplace being the focus of everyday family life,'' Cindy says. In Connecticut, they met members of a local historical society who did open-hearth cooking.

The couple decided to try it themselves, and their first experiment was beef stew, which they served to friends. ``But it took quite a while to do an entire meal over the fireplace,'' Cindy says - several years, in fact. Largely self-taught, the Clarks read antique cookbooks, attended cooking demonstrations at such places as Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, and asked lots of questions. ``We mostly had to learn through trial and error,'' Bill says. After several years of experiments, they could prepare a meal of corn bread, soup, two vegetables, an entree, and dessert, all in the fireplace, all delectable.

By the 18th century, cooking in the fireplace was quite sophisticated. There were dozens of tools and techniques, all requiring mastery for successful hearth cooking. One of the most essential skills is building and maintaining fires: knowing which woods to use, and how hot the fire and coals are at any given time. Some things are cooked over open flame, others nestled right in the coals, and a fire has no temperature controls.

``You want to have coals there when you're ready for them, and they don't just happen,'' Bill adds. Surprisingly, hearth cooking takes about the same amount of time as oven cooking.

The Clarks have collected several hundred antique cooking utensils, hunting high and low and investing thousands of dollars in them. For one dinner, they might use 30 utensils. Among them are three-legged skillets, kettles, reflector ovens, Dutch ovens, broilers, cranes with ``S'' hooks for holding kettles over the fire, spits and skewers, and trivets and fireplace tools. Baking is done in a Dutch oven, roasting in a reflector oven, boiling in kettles, and saut'eing in skillets. Most utensils are iron, with the exception of copper pots used for cooking fruit sauces.

When they first started cooking fruit sauces, they used iron pots. ``The next morning, our teeth would be black, because the acid in the fruits would react with the pots,'' Bill says. ``It was kind of funny, everyone with black teeth.'' The copper pots they now use are non-reactive - based on advice they later discovered in an antique cookbook.

Timing is a key factor they had to learn; if each dish isn't placed in the fire in the right sequence, dinner will come out in the wrong order. ``You can do something and have it come out too late; say, the corn bread's finally done and everyone's finished eating,'' Cindy says.

Corn bread was traditional fare for the 18th-century meal, as were dried meats, one-pot dishes, boiled root vegetables, and such elaborate desserts as mousses and syllabubs. Since everyday 18th-century fare was less exciting, the Clarks adapt most 18th-century recipes for modern taste. Bill explains, ``If we served most true 18th-century food, people would be revolted.'' Basing menus on what an upper-class family might have on special occasions, the Clarks always use fresh meats, seafood, and poultry.

Each meal starts with corn bread, followed by a soup, which might be pumpkin, fresh herb, Shaker okra, butternut squash, or mulligatawny. Entrees include Deep-Dish Chicken and Oyster Pie, pork pie, roast turkey, duck, goose, pheasant, capon, Nantucket Scallops With Scallions, fresh ham, venison, and elk. Meats take on a smokiness, and soups a subtle taste from the fire. Vegetables like green zucchini and bright orange pumpkin lend color and texture to the plate. To top it all off, there are such desserts as carrot, pumpkin, and coriander-ginger cakes; baked apples in custard, Indian pudding, and peach cobblers.

The Clarks read half a dozen versions of a recipe before adapting it, to get a feeling for how it should taste, and how they would like to change it. One cookbook alone, written by a ship's captain, has seven gingerbread recipes. Some of their two dozen cookbooks are original antique versions, such as an 1815 edition of ``American Cookery,'' first published in 1796. They also use late 19th-century Shaker recipes.

Older cookbooks typically had few instructions, offering only a sequential list of ingredients and assuming the cook knew what to do. Cryptic directions might be ``take and cook the lamb,'' Bill laughs.

The Clarks continue to expand their repertoire, and recently started serving hearth-cooked lunches as well. Their two children, Wendy, 14, and Chris, 11, help out with preparing food and waiting on table, and find it more fun than homework. And Cindy and Bill, formerly in insurance and construction, respectively, have found rewarding new careers as 18th-century hosteliers.

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