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Reviving the Taste of History

Hobbyists, a museum, even a restaurant cook meals over open-hearth fires

STEPPING out of the gray November chill into the cheery, fire-lit warmth of the Richardson Parsonage is a step 160 years back in time.

Inside, a woman in early-19th-century clothing - kitchen cap, work dress, and apron - is busying herself in front of a large fireplace, tending a fire in the hearth and one in an oven set into the bricks to the right. At a work table she stops to kneed dough that will be baked later in the day.

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The woman, Claire Gregoire, is an interpretation supervisor at Old Sturbridge Village, a "living history" museum an hour or so's drive west of Boston. She is one of many "interpreters" at the village who practice the art of open-hearth cooking, the methods by which Americans prepared their food until metal cooking stoves gained favor in the mid-19th century.

A visitor to the village might pop into one of several historic homes here and find a similar daily scene. And on six Saturday evenings this fall the village will let visitors participate, offering a complete open-hearth-cooked meal. The menu will include mulled cider, curried chicken, roast beef with horseradish sauce, gingerbread, and apple-cranberry pie.

Meanwhile, at Randall's Ordinary, a restaurant and inn in North Stonington, Conn., co-owners Bill and Cindy Clark cook all the meals for their guests - breakfast, lunch, and dinner - using open-hearth techniques.

The Clarks, who started as open-hearth-cooking hobbyists and have made a thriving business out of their interest, say that people enjoy experiencing how food might have tasted 200 years ago.

They and other open-hearth enthusiasts mention a flavor difference in hearth-cooked food. It's "not a barbecue-grilled" taste, Mrs. Clark says, but "a little smokiness." Some cooks say they think the cast-iron utensils and the cooking techniques, which seal in moisture and flavor, play a role as well.

While hearth cooking can be simple, it can also be quite sophisticated. By the late 18th century, "some of it was quite fancy," says Nancy Chamberlain, who teaches hearth cooking in Holliston, Mass. She says when you examine recipes and other accounts of meals of the time, you realize "they had darn good meals. There's a lot of good stuff in there."

The basic principles of open-hearth cooking are not much different than those for a modern gas or electric stove. The chief difference is that the heat source is a bed of firewood coals (or, in the case of baking in a beehive oven, bricks that have been heated by coals).

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Much of the enjoyment comes from trying to follow 200-year-old recipes. Measurements in those days had not been standardized; a teacupful was just that (about 3/4ths of a modern cup, or 180 ml); a spoonful was measured with whatever spoon was at hand; a gill was roughly a half-cup of liquid (120 ml); a "handful" was a common measurement.

Gauging temperatures was also more of an art than a science. "If you are afraid your oven is too hot, throw a little flour in and shut it up for a minute," explains an early cookbook, "The American Frugal Housewife," by Mrs. Child (Boston, 1833). "If it scorches black immediately, the heat is too furious. If it is merely brown, it is right." Another early technique, adds Mrs. Gregoire, was to "roll up your sleeve and put your arm in the oven. If you had to take it out before the count of 10, the oven was

too hot."

LISTENING for sounds was helpful too, particularly since the back of the fireplace was dimly lit and not easy to see. An early recipe calls for onion soup to cook "until it stops making noise," Gregoire says.

For people who want to try hearth cooking at home, only a fireplace and a few simple utensils are needed. Hearth-cooking enthusiasts often use a mixture of antique implements and reproductions. Antique, craft, and museum shops, yard sales, and blacksmiths are possible sources. Among the useful pieces are:

Andirons: Metal braces that provide a base for building a fire and allow air to circulate from underneath.

Bellows: An accordian-like device for blowing air into a fire to make it burn hotter and develop coals more quickly.

Cast-iron pots, skillets, kettles: These heavy-iron cooking vessels were practical and versatile; some were suspended above the fire, others placed over coals.

Cast-iron trivets: Stands used to help keep food warm or melt butter above coals.

Coffee roaster: Used to roast green coffee beans.

Crane: A swinging arm built into the fireplace from which pots, skillets, and kettles could be hung for cooking above the fire.

Dutch oven: This three-legged pot has a close-fitting lid and was used to bake pies, biscuits, and puddings.

Peel: A long spade used for baking in a brick, or beehive, oven next to, or inside, the fireplace. (Pizzerias use them still.)

Reflector oven, tin kitchen, or tin baker: It stands in front of the fireplace using the reflected heat to cook meat on a spit inside. A well captures drippings for basting.

Spider skillet: A frying pan with legs that stands over a bed of coals.

For those interested in trying open-hearth cooking, Gregoire, Mrs. Clark, and Mrs. Chamberlain offer these tips:

* Remember you are working over an open fire and take common-sense precautions, such as having a fire extinguisher nearby (just as you would near your kitchen stove). Don't wear loose clothing or long hair that could get into the flames. Some synthetics, such as polyester, can melt near high heat.

* Take a class. Many museums, clubs, historical societies, or other groups offer lessons or can lead you to individuals who teach.

* Make sure to use seasoned hardwoods (oak, hickory, and ash are particularly good) to create long-lasting coals.

* If you have an antique chimney or brick oven, have it professionally inspected first.

Among the many useful books for beginners is the "Old Sturbridge Village Cookbook," edited by Caroline Sloat (Globe Pequot Press, 1984).

* Old Sturbridge Village is located at 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge, MA 01566 (tel: 508-347-3362). Randall's Ordinary Restaurant and Inn, P.O. Box 243, North Stonington, CT 06359 (tel: 203-599-4540).

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