Food section contributor Debra Samuels wrote "Close to the Hearth" in mid-January, then signed up for the day-long Hardcore Hearth Cooking workshop run by Kathleen Wall at Plimoth Plantion. Here is her report.
Dress code: Layers and no loose clothing. At 7 a.m., I bundled up and in a glorious sunny day, drove to my date with 17th century New England.
At our orientation we sipped and nibbled on the traditional Colonial snack of coffee and Dunkin' Donuts. Among the participants in the workshop were a professional baker, a Revolutionary War re-enacter, and a Civil War re-enactor (and anthropologist). We set out for the single-room house with a thatched roof, dirt floor, and very small windows (below).
The fire in the open hearth had already been started by Kathleen's 2 able assistants, Malka and Kathy, living history interpreters at Plimoth during the year. It was dark and very cold and we all gravitated to the warmth of the fire.
Whole sweet potatoes were heating in a cast iron pot and turkey parts simmering in another; both hanging from long poles over the fire. The turkey stock would become the base for a pottage with maize, and the sweet potatoes would be sliced, set into a pastry, and turn into sweet potato pie. But we were hours away from that.
We cooked sliced onions in a cast-iron skillet with 3 legs set above glowing coals. They would eventually be made into a delicious dish called onion sop, sort of an onion soup with poached eggs served over thick slices of toast. The toaster was a cast iron fanlike contraption with glowing coals underneath.
We took turns feeding the fire, adjusting the height and position of the pots and pans all day. We were working constantly. As the sun rose higher, a bit more light came into the cottage, but not much. The room had a bed at one end, a table near the hearth, and benches here and there. The entire family and any servants all lived in one room. Kathleen guided our chores, gave us historical tidbits about food, life, and the origins of Colonial words.
While lifting a heavy pot brimming with the turkey and maize soup, I was very aware that if I dropped that pot there would be no food to replace it. It's also physically exhausting to lean over the fire all day. We had assistants. Colonial wives were probably cooking alone.
We snacked on pancakes we made with whole spices we had pounded into powder to perfume the batter. As the meal was coming together, Kathleen told us that the Pilgrims consumed 4,000 calories a day. It makes sense considering the amount of activity the women did and the chores the men had outside. On the coldest days, they could warm their feet on this little contraption.
We hauled the feast up to the activity center and the 21st century. The food was delicious. I expected bland English fare, but this was filled with good seasonings and interesting flavors. We left full, smiling, and smelling like we had bathed in smoke.
I woke up the next morning really happy to have been born in the 20th century with a new appreciation of all that we have and the long road getting here. I'm not sure I could have nursed an open fire seven days a week, depending on it for my food, hot water, and other necessities.
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ContributorsSheryl Julian, the Globe's Food Editor, writes regularly for the Food section.
Devra First is the Globe's food reporter and restaurant critic. Her reviews appear weekly in the Food section.
Ellen Bhang reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe and writes about wine.