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Ancient kitchens have stories to tell

The 1807 Rundlet-May house's innovative Rumford fireplace featured a round-door roaster on the left, hangers for heavy kettles inside, and wooden coventry stew holes fueled by individual fireboxes below. The 1807 Rundlet-May house's innovative Rumford fireplace featured a round-door roaster on the left, hangers for heavy kettles inside, and wooden coventry stew holes fueled by individual fireboxes below. (Photos By Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe)
By Clara Silverstein
Globe Correspondent / April 29, 2009

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PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - If tonight's dinner preparations seem laborious, imagine lifting cast-iron kettles on and off open flames, baking bread in an oven with no temperature control, and washing dishes with water carried in from a well.

"The story of how people's lives changed over time can be told in terms of the kitchens of historic homes," says Nancy Carlisle, a curator at Historic New England, the organization offering a tour of two historic homes here on May 9.

Looking back to a time when things were especially difficult, says the curator, can be instructive right now. "They were often making more with less," she says.

The Portsmouth tour, "A Tale of Two Kitchens," is part of Historic New England's 2009 Year of the Kitchen. One stop on the tour is the 1807 Rundlet-May house, built for merchant James Rundlet and his family. There you can see the Rumford system, named for Count Rumford (born Benjamin Thompson), which was then an innovative approach to cooking. It's centered around a fireplace, with a round iron door set into the wall on the left, and a series of burners hidden beneath a wooden board on the right. This was one of the first kitchens to separate chambers for different cooking techniques. Ordinarily, people cooked inside one fireplace, hanging heavy pots on a metal arm that swung in and out, or heaping hot coals around pots set on a brick hearth. The Rumford kitchen's iron door opens into a primitive two-shelf roasting oven, fueled by its own firebox underneath. Three burners, each fueled by fireboxes, were designed for stew pots.

"Rumford was an expert at making cooking more efficient," says Carlisle.

The Rundlet-May home contains one of the best-preserved Rumford kitchens in America. "We think of old homes as stagnant places, but this shows us that someone was thinking about the latest technology at the time."

The home, which in its early days housed 13 children and several servants, also had the latest technology in its scullery kitchen. Some of the water was supplied by Portsmouth's early aqueduct system. A special set-kettle heated water just for laundry.

"The servants who lived here were probably the happiest in Portsmouth because they had access to all these luxuries," says Elizabeth Farish, who oversees tours of the Rundlet-May house for Historic New England.

Also on the tour is the Wentworth-Coolidge mansion, former home of Benning Wentworth, who served as Royal Governor from 1741 to 1766. The 40-room home overlooks windswept Little Harbor. Its French-style kitchen is probably the first of its kind in New England, says Carlisle. (Thomas Jefferson installed a similar kitchen at Monticello in Virginia.) A waist-high brick structure has two deep holes in the top designed for stew pots, each fueled by charcoal that burned underneath.

For baking, a beehive-shaped oven was built into a wall just outside the kitchen, with openings on each side. "You had to stick your arm in to tell if it was hot enough," says Lorna Robinson, a member of the commission that oversees the home.

Opposite the kitchen, a brick-lined milk room provided an early form of refrigeration. It could be flooded with cool water to keep milk and butter cold.

In front of the main hearth in the adjoining room is a frying pan with an extra-long handle so the cook wouldn't get burned reaching into the fireplace. A tin reflector oven, which looks like an oil drum with one side missing, was a precursor to today's ovens. When it was set on the hearth, its walls reflected the fireplace heat, which helped cook the food.

Though implements and trends have changed over the centuries, there's one thing that hasn't: the important role the kitchen plays in family life.

"By looking at the kitchen in history, people should come away with a greater understanding of their own kitchen, whether it's a spot where they gather or a spot that they want to get away from," says Carlisle.