What does it takes to make a good cook? Among things I’d list would be knife skills — the ability to slice, chop and dice with accuracy and speed. Planning and
preparation are important, as well as an organized kitchen and a workspace.
Having all the tools and ingredients needed for a dish prepped, organized and
within reach is important. That’s known as mise
en place by professional chefs, often shortened to “meese” — a French phrase meaning “put in place” Other factors include sense of taste, knowledge of timing and ingredients and how to combine them.
That’s quite a list, but it pales in comparison to the knowledge and skills required
of earlier cooks — especially in frontier communities
such as New Salem during its short life from 1829-1840. As noted in last week’s column, my husband and I enjoy fireplace cooking — it’s something we do for pleasure, mostly on weekends. But in those frontier settlements, hearth cooking wasn’t merely a fun activity. It was necessary for survival. Flavorful and delicious sustenance was a bonus, but one that was achieved
far more often than modern cooks — with our conveniences and virtually unlimited access to ingredients — might think.
Barbara Archer provides a window into that world. Archer, a Springfield native
and retired Springfield High School English and speech
teacher, has been on staff and volunteering at New Salem since 1988. She and her late husband, William, maintained one of New Salem’s kitchen gardens for many years, and she’s become the (virtually) resident expert on hearth
cookery, demonstrating it for visitors as well as training new hearth-cook volunteers.
All the skills required of a modern cook were important back then, even if in
somewhat different form. But another skill — far more
complex and subject to multiple uncontrollable factors was building, maintaining, controlling and utilizing the hearth fire.
“The fire in the fireplace was a necessity for both sustenance and warmth. However it was deadly. Death by fire was second only to death by childbirth,” writes Archer in her New Salem cookbooks. Most cooks were women — and presumably the best cooks, with recipes and techniques handed down to them by their mothers. Bachelors such as Lincoln would have had enough cooking knowledge to basically feed themselves, but were always glad to partake of the tastier fare often generously shared by New Salem women.
“Each cook had to know when she needed a brisk or slow fire, when to pull the crane away from the fire to prevent scorching, how to determine a hot or warm oven (baking kettle), the best woods and sizes of firewood for different purposes, the temperature of coals for baking and even which apron should be used for which duties,” Archer writes.
“Anything you can cook on top of the stove, you can cook over the fire,” Archer tells me. “Anything you can bake, you can bake in a Dutch oven.”
It wasn’t the domed-lid, flat bottomed pot known as a Dutch oven today. Sometimes known as a “baking kettle,” a Dutch oven is/was a three-footed, cast iron pot with a recessed lid. Red-hot coals were raked onto the hearth. The oven was placed over them, then more hot coals were shoveled onto the recessed lid. That’s how bread, pies and even cakes and cookies were made. “They couldn’t have made many cookies at one time,” I commented when Archer told me this.
“They had big kettles, too — we’ve got one here that’s 14 inches,” she showed me.
“Sure,” I thought. “They’d have maybe held six cookies, and each batch had to have fresh, appropriately
heated coals on top and bottom.”
The Rutledge Tavern kitchen contains a fascinating array of equipment and
utensils. Modern cooks would recognize some of the items hanging from the
mantle or from hooks in the ceiling and walls: trivets, spoons, ladles and
skillets. Others are unfamiliar, such as the piggin (a bucket used to collect
scraps to feed pigs), or iron ‘S’ hooks used to regulate the height of kettles suspended over the fire, and, thus
the cooking temperature. There’s a large colander with quarter-sized holes for making cottage cheese. A tin
reflecting oven is a shiny half-cylinder that, with its open side towards the
fire, bakes items with direct and reflected
heat. It’s the most sophisticated piece of equipment there.
A contraption with long handles and two hinged discs turns out to be a
waffle/wafer-maker. In summer, Archer rolls the waffles into cones and fills
them with whipped cream and raspberries. The wafer-maker was purchased and
donated by Archer, (typical of her and other volunteers working to keeping New
Salem going in the face of draconian budget cuts). Rutledge Tavern’s large array of kitchen items was not always the norm. Archer says, “A woman may well have only had a single pot, a knife, and a spoon to prepare all
her family’s meals.”
Determining what and how dishes were cooked with that equipment can be quite a
challenge. Measurements were far from exact: “a lump of butter the size of an egg”, or a “teacup of sugar.” Spellings were often different (sallet=salad) as well as terminology (something
“coffined” was enclosed in pastry or other casing).
It’s been a fulfilling challenge for Archer. “It is [at New Salem], she writes, “where I find it much easier to prepare a full-fledged Thanksgiving dinner than in my modern kitchen at
home. It is here where I have carried wood, built a fire, carried and heated
water, prepared a nourishing meal, tidied up, scrubbed the hearth and sat back
in the rocking chair by the fireplace, relaxed, and enjoyed a time of solace
during some of the most trying times of my life.”
The following recipes are from Archer’s three New Salem cookbooks: Simple Fixin’s, The Descendents [sic] Reunion Cookbook, and Rutledge Tavern Culinary Herb and Flower Garden. They are available at the New Salem gift shop (it’s now closed until March, however) and at the Lincoln Presidential Museum gift shop. The recipes in each are staff and volunteer favorites that have been prepared at New Salem, primarily in the Rutledge Tavern, but are written for use in a modern kitchen.
New Salem residents would certainly have had spirits at hand to make this “drunken” pie. “Alcohol consumption was the highest it’s ever been in America,” Archer says. It wasn’t simply because people in those days were drunkards. “They were often afraid to drink water,” Archer notes. “There was always a threat of typhus or some other disease from unclean water.
they could get milk fever from drinking milk.”
Alcohol also extracts and enhances flavor. (Vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in alcohol to “extract” their flavor.) It’s that ability that makes this pie so special. “When I make this pie [at New Salem] people can smell it clear down the street,” Archer says.
Note: Some of the whisky/applejack will evaporate as the pie bakes, but some
will remain, so this pie should not be eaten by anyone who must avoid alcohol
consumption. It can also be made by substituting an additional cup of cider for
DRUNK APPLE PIE
12 oz. dried apples
1 c. whiskey or applejack
1 c. cider
1 c. brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
liberal grating of nutmeg
1 unbaked pie shell
butter for dotting
Soak the dried apples in the whiskey or applejack and 1 c. cider for several hours. If they are still dry, add cider to cover and cook. Cool before proceeding. Add brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg to apple mixture. Pour into piecrust; dot with butter. Bake in a preheated 400° oven 20-25 minutes. Add extra cider if it becomes dry. Do not use extra apples! The final product will be a flat pie.
Wheat flour and yeast were luxuries in New Salem, says Archer. Quick breads — most commonly made from corn — would have been far more commonplace.
SPIDER CORN BREAD
1 ½ (one and one half) c. white cornmeal
1 T. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
2 eggs, well beaten
2 c. buttermilk
1 ½ (one and one half) T. butter, melted
Mix together the cornmeal, sugar, salt, and baking soda. Add the buttermilk to the eggs and add to dry mixture; mix until moist. Add the melted butter and stir in gradually. Pour into a well-greased skillet or heavy baking pan and bake in a preheated 450° oven for 30 minutes.
This mushroom catsup appears in all three cookbooks. Although today for most people, catsup means the ubiquitous tomato-based condiment, in earlier times, catsups were based on anything from cranberries to walnuts.
6 lb. mushrooms
6 T. salt
Dry red wine, if needed
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 T. freshly ground nutmeg
1 ½ (one and one half) tsp. whole allspice
1 tsp. mace
1 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. peppercorns
1 T. cayenne pepper
2-3 bay leaves
¼ (one fourth) lb. shallots, peeled, finely chopped
1 tsp. cloves
Break mushrooms into bowl layered with salt. Top with salt. Cover and let set 24 hours. Strain mushrooms, squeezing out as much juice as possible. Measure liquid and add wine, if necessary, to make 4 cups. Combine juice with remaining ingredients. Put in pot and bring to a boil. Simmer, uncovered, until liquid is reduced, 1 hour or longer. Cool. Strain. Bottle. Will keep indefinitely.