For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved fireplaces. Gas-burning fireplaces may be better than nothing — wonderful for people who can’t or don’t want to deal with armloads of wood or sweeping up ashes. For me, though, maximum pleasure comes from the ever-changing, glowing flicker and scent of a real wood-burning fireplace. It’s primal; a connection with earliest civilizations; humanity’s ability to tame and contain, and use fire.
Growing up, I longed for a fireplace, and somehow talked (badgered) my parents into installing a free-standing fireplace in my bedroom when they remodeled. (As an adult and parent of three children, I can’t believe I pulled that off!) My fireplace was a ’60s classic: a free-standing orange-enameled angular contraption. My fireplace was the perfect place for my girlfriends and me, draped over beanbags, to giggle over boyfriends, consult a Ouija board and even have occasional serious discussions about our futures.
There weren’t fireplaces in my college dorms or apartments, nor in the Oak Park apartment where we lived during my husband Peter’s dental school years, or in the house we rented when we moved back to Springfield.
The very first thing I did after we signed the papers to buy our 150+ year-old farmhouse was to call a chimney sweep to put the boarded-up fireplaces in working order. Our bedroom fireplace had a hand-pegged walnut mantle; wood lath had been nailed over the opening. The mantle in the living room fireplace directly beneath it was gone, and the whole thing had been plastered over and wallpapered, but its outline was clearly visible.
The chimney sweep looked everything over and said, “There’s never been a fireplace here.” “Of course there was,” I said, pointing to the mantle. ”I dunno ’bout that,” he replied. ”But there’s a solid brick chimney that’s flush behind them.”
Both fireplaces were in the oldest part of the house. We eventually concluded that when an addition had been built in 1901, the fireplaces had been eliminated in favor of newfangled central heating. Unfortunately, the chimney was still in use as a furnace exhaust when we bought the house; that made restoring the fireplaces prohibitively expensive. It would be a decade before we were able to have a fireplace in a family room addition contiguous with a greatly expanded kitchen. By then, I didn’t want just any fireplace — I wanted a specific type of fireplace I’d read about years before — a Rumford. In pre-Internet days, it took a lot of searching and phone calls; now a plethora of information — from where to buy Rumford component kits, to blueprints and accessories is easily found online.
Benjamin Rumford, born in 1753 in Massachusetts, was a scientist and inventor who studied heat and designed an energy-efficient fireplace. Rumford fireplaces are tall and narrow at the back, with angled sides and a flue that prevents heat from escaping upwards. He invented many other things as well, including the double boiler, a drip coffeepot and a baking powder that doesn’t contain aluminum salts, that’s made here in the U.S. under the name Rumford. It’s the only baking powder I use: not only does it work well, but it doesn’t impart the tinny taste that can result from other types. (It can be found at Food Fantasies and some grocery stores.)
The reason you’ve probably never heard of Rumford is that he was a Tory who worked with the British in the Revolutionary War, afterwards moving to London. He’s sometimes called the Tory Benjamin Franklin.
I wanted a Rumford fireplace primarily because of its energy efficiency and rustic appearance, but I also wanted a fireplace we could use, not just for warmth and ambiance, but also for cooking. Initially I was only thinking of things like wintertime family wiener roasts, but soon found many other possibilities.
The first was a Tuscan grill, sometimes called a fireplace grill. The frame is placed before building the fire; and most designs allow you to set the grate in high, medium, or low positions. It’s the fireplace cooking medium we use most often, typically at least once or more a week in cold weather. Steaks, chicken, vegetables — anything normally cooked on an outdoor grill — are especially wonderful prepared over a hardwood fire.
Most rotisseries in the U.S. these days are part of an outdoor grill, in restaurants, or in groceries roasting take-away chickens. But for centuries, they were commonly found in front of fireplaces, with clocklike mechanisms cranked by hand.
A few years ago, former Boston chef Bruce Frankel founded the SpitJack company, “from a passion for food and cooking with fire.” The company Web site says, “while taking in the pleasures of wood burning in our home fireplace, we wondered if we could extend the experience by using the open flames for cooking.” Initially, SpitJack only offered one item — an electric rotisserie designed for home fireplaces. Soon after, they began offering a mechanical rotisserie that’s an authentic reproduction of an 18th or 19th century appliance.
Both are handsome enough that there’s no need to hide them when not in use. When Grillmeister Peter first saw an article about Spitjacks in the February 2005 Saveur magazine, he immediately had to have one.
We decided on the mechanical version, figuring that because of the fire we’d be keeping an eye on it anyway. There’s no doubt that the mechanical version’s gears are elegant, but it requires more fussing, and didn’t seem to handle larger items well, so we eventually ordered the electric version; that’s what I’d recommend. These days, the SpitJack company offers a line of products for use in fireplaces (including a fireplace grill and the arm below), to outdoor grilling/barbeque products, cookware, knives and even dinner bells. It’s an interesting Web site, with lots of useful information about cooking with wood (www.spitjack.com).
My latest fireplace cooking accessory is an iron “crane” for suspending pots. It’s bolted to our fireplace’s sidewall and swivels. I’ve used it occasionally for soups and stews.
Peter and I enjoy cooking in our fireplace. It’s something we do for fun, mostly on weekends. But when I met Barbara Archer,
and saw what she makes in the fireplaces at New Salem, I realized how much can
be accomplished over an open fire — and how much skill and knowledge it takes. Next week’s RealCuisine column will feature New Salem fireplace cookery.
CHICKEN POTPIE WITH SAFFRON
1 6 lb. chicken
1 stalk celery, chunked
¼ tsp. saffron threads, (optional, see above)
2 large onions, chunked
1 ½ T. salt
1 stalk celery, chopped
3 potatoes, cut in large dice
2 T. chopped fresh parsley
ground pepper to taste
For the Potpie squares:
3 T. shortening
2 c. flour, plus additional
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking soda
1 beaten egg
1/3 c. water