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Brick ovens, antique books: cooking at Sturbridge

Before Harriet Olmstead can bake her bread at the Pliny Freeman Farm in Old Sturbridge Village, she has to wait two hours for the oven to preheat. And that doesn't mean just flipping a dial and waiting for a light to go out.

In this case the oven is part of a large early 19th-century fireplace in the farmhouse kitchen. During those two hours Harriet will have continuously fed kindling into the old brick bake oven.

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Then after she has shoveled out the coals and inserted her arm into the oven to determine if the bricks are giving off the right amount of heat, she will slide in her loaves.

Neither she nor Janet Kingsbury-Warren minds that they spend their days cooking in a kitchen that lacks such modern conveniences as a refrigerator or stove. It's all part of their jobs as interpreters in this village-museum which depicts the working life of small-town New Englanders during the early 1800s.

On the Saturday morning that I wandered into the 1801 farmhouse, the two women were busy baking and preparing the "nooning" meal, which would be eaten by them and the other village staff members who work on the farm. While they nimbly performed their numerous tasks, they were equally busy answering questions from visitors curious about the mechanics of early American cooking.

Although the nooning was traditionally the main meal of the day for 19 th-century farmers, on Saturday it was usually composed of leftovers, to enable the women to bake ahead for the week. On this Saturday the leftovers were in the form of thick duck soup simmering in a small cast-iron pot suspended over the fire.

While the soup simmered, Janet prepared the beans that would be baked for nearly 24 hours in the preheated oven. When taken out on Sunday morning, they would still be warm and would serve as a quick and convenient breakfast. Their preparation involved taking beans that had soaked overnight, putting them in a crock, and then adding molasses, brown sugar, and sliced onion.

But baking was the main focus of the day, and so the women soon turned their attention to making bread and gingerbread. Because the day was drafty, the bread dough, made of cornmeal and rye flour, was put inside a reflecting oven to rise. The more common use of the portable tin oven, customarily placed on the hearth to reflect heat from the fire, was for roasting meat.

Most of the recipes that the Sturbridge cooks use are from antique cookbooks. Before preparing their gingerbread, Janet and Harriet consulted "The Pocumtive Housewife," published in 1805. The recipe called for much the same ingredients as a modern one -- chiefly molasses, ginger, flour, and water -- with one difference being that a pinch of "saleratus" was listed. That, it turned out, was the old name for baking soda.

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Janet has charge of planning the menu at Freeman Farm, one that must chiefly rely on the foodstuffs produced on the property. It must also reflect the eating habits of a family of that period and situation. "We have a lot of soups and stews, because that is what research reveals that they had a lot of," she explained. "We also have pie, cheese, and bread at almost every meal."

The staff at Freeman Farm raises a variety of animals, and so has an abundance of pork, chicken, beef, and other meats all year round. It is also adept at making such products as butter, cheese, sausage, and bacon. from the kitchen garden come vegetables and herbs, some of which are dried for use during the winter months. Along the fireplace mantel hang strings of drying apple slices which, when needed, will be reconstituted with water and used for apple pie.

Although their antiquated style of food preparation appears toilsome and time-consuming, both women profess to enjoy it more than the modern method. For those who think they might feel the same way, the village offers demonstrations and workshops in fireplace cooking several times a year.

The following are recipes from Old Sturbridge Village, adapted for those who would rather not use a fireplace. Muster Day Gingerbread 1 cup shortening 1 cup hot water 1 cup dark molasses 1 cup sugar 1 cup flour 1 teaspoon soda 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon ginger 1 teaspoon nutmeg 2 teaspoons cinnamon

In a mixing bowl melt shortening in hot water. Stir in molasses and sugar. Sift together flour, soda, salt, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Mix them, a little at a time, into the batter.

Then add enough additional sifted flour (about 5 cups) to make a stiff dough. Roll the dough on a floured board 1/2 inch thick. Pat it into a greased cookie sheet or pan, 8 by 16 or 10 by 15 inches. Bake 20 minutes at 375 degrees F.

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