“Back then, there was no baking powder, or self-rising flour,” notes Jillian McGrath, a member of Coggeshall Farm’s interpretive staff. “So to make sure our pound cake is the right consistency, we have to really cream the butter and sugar. Get lots of air in there. It should be light and fluffy.”
The attendees of this Hearth Cooking Workshop, held weekly at Bristol’s 18th century farm museum, were all seasoned home cooks, and the concept of beginning a cake recipe by creaming — thoroughly incorporating — butter and sugar was hardly foreign. What was foreign to the 21st century cooks in the room was the state of the kitchen. Not updated since the small farmhouse was built in the last years of the 1700’s, no shiny KitchenAid stand mixer was going to come to the rescue. This meal was going to come together in the brick fireplace, by ambient and candlelight, prepped with wooden and pewter utensils, and cooked over a wood-burning fire.
This was going to look a lot like work.
The recipes are, at first blush, basic: roast chicken stuffed with bread and herbs; stewed lamb with root vegetables simmered in its broth; the aforementioned pound cake. What makes them anything but basic is their source.
The ingredients, too, are authentic. Not of the period, thankfully, but mostly all Coggeshall-grown, with the exception of the locally-sourced butter and flour. The eggs were laid by the farm’s hens, and the beets, carrots and turnips were unearthed from bins of sand in the farmhouse root cellar, where they have spent the months since the harvest. Preferring dry air, the onions have passed their time bundled and hanging by the hearth.
The chicken, too, was homegrown; its meager, free-range breast serving as its badge of authenticity, differentiating it from an enhanced factory-raised bird as surely as silicone separates the stars of the “Real Housewives” television franchise from the rest of womanhood.
The recipes themselves are of the period, sourced from the first cookbook to be published in the United States: “American Cookery, or the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables; And the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards and preserves; And all kinds of Cakes from the imperial plumb to plain cake, Adapted to this country and all grades of life,” was released in 1796. The title alone helps explain why preparing a big meal could easily consume most of the day.
As America’s first cookbook author, it is perhaps understandable why Amelia Simmons did not go for a particular culinary niche, and her book shares her knowledge about any and all comestibles that a brave colonial settler might encounter. Simmons’ magnum opus even introduced the young nation to a Dutch word that would soon become one of the first words on the lips of every American toddler: cookie.
Of note was Simmons’ self-designated credentials: “An American orphan.” What reads like a misplaced indictment of the lack of a social service safety net in 18th-century America, was in fact an important point for Simmons. “Being an orphan, she had to pick this information up as she went,” said Stacy Booth, another member of the farm’s interpretive staff. “Most women would have spent much of their lives cooking alongside their own mothers. Simmons didn’t have that.”
Chopping by candlelight, spinning a chicken suspended on a makeshift string rotisserie, creaming butter and sugar until your forearm bulges like Popeye’s, and baking cake in a pot buried under a mound of red-hot coals is more than just an incredibly time-consuming way to obtain something (admittedly a far-superior version of something) that could be picked up at any grocery grab-and-go counter.
It’s incredibly satisfying.
And it reflects a trend that is evident to Booth, who spent several years as one of the indefatigable pilgrims inhabiting Plimoth Plantation, and McGrath, whose interest in farming and homesteading brought her to Coggeshall. “With everything being so convenient, you want to hold on to some of the old ways,” says Booth. “Making things with your hands feeds your soul.”
For more information of Coggeshall Farm’s Hearth Cooking Workshops, which are held year-round and change with the seasons, please visit www.coggeshallfarm.org or call 401/253-9062.