Rhodeside Diaries: Hearth Cooking at Historic Coggeshall Farm
Time travel is one of my fascinations. It’s probably one of the reasons I love history so much. Aside from the unlikely event of a wormhole appearing in my bathtub, researching history is the closest I’ll ever get to traveling back in time.
But what if I could step back in time?
The hearth cooking workshops currently being offered by Coggeshall Farm Museum in Bristol offer the average 21st-century Joe like myself an opportunity to experience an aspect of authentic 18th-century life.
Coggeshall Farm dates back to the 1750s, and was a tenant farm for most of its existence. One of those tenant families begat Chandler Hall Coggeshall, born in the farmhouse in 1843. He went on to become a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, and he helped found the Rhode Island College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts, which later became the University of Rhode Island. It is for him, and for his interest in agriculture, that the farm was named.
In 1973 the 40-acre property became a nonprofit museum, where everything from the buildings to farming techniques to clothing to tools to livestock to plant varieties in the garden reflect a world in which it is perpetually 1799. Their hearth dinners highlight the ways in which 18th-century foodways differed during the four seasons.
The dinners I attended in the summer and in the fall began the same way: meeting our knowledgeable hosts and guides for the evening— Stacy Booth and Connie Ganley in July, and in October, Jillian McGrath and Connie again—in the rustic kitchen of the recently restored 1790 farmhouse.
After introductions, the first order of business was to gather eggs to use in some of our preparations. The hens have their own henhouse but apparently prefer to lay their eggs in the big pile of hay in the barn, so workshop participants had to carefully stork-step through the hay looking for the subtle telltale divots that mark hidden caches of eggs.
Then, it was out to the garden to gather fresh vegetable components for our meal. In summer, there were onions, lettuce, cucumbers (lots of them), thyme flowers, borage flowers and nasturtiums. In the fall the harvest was more heavily weighted toward root vegetables— turnips, parsnips, white carrots. Still, there was lettuce, calendula and thyme for the salad.
Our main touchstone for culinary accuracy was Amelia Simmons’s 1796 American Cookery, which she wrote when she was 26 years old. Raised by her father, she had no mother to teach her to keep house, so she decided to share her hard-won knowledge with others. It’s one of the first truly American cookbooks, rather than an American version of a European cookbook. Recipes from the era—or receipts, as they were called—were vague on specifics like measurements and cooking times, so home cooks improvised with trial-and-error until arriving at their own best version of a favorite receipt.
Back in the kitchen, everyone pitched in—there was plenty to do. There was no store-bought ground nutmeg in a little spice can, so we had to shave it off a whole nutmeg with a little grater. Cinnamon needed to be hand-ground with a mortar and pestle. We chipped hunks of sugar from a solid cone of the stuff and ground that up into a powder. Vegetables needed to be washed and sliced.
“What do we do with the scraps?” we asked.
“Throw them out the window,” replied Connie, pointing to the open aperture. “The chickens will get them.”
While we worked, the interpreters stoked the fire in the fireplace, heating skillets and pots of water.
Our summer menu consisted of salad, fried lamb with onions, braised cucumbers and onions, fried cucumbers (I did say we picked a lot of them) and, for dessert, Shrewsbury cake. In the fall, we had boiled lamb head (yes, I said lamb head), over a bed of lamb hash and sliced bread, roast chicken, boiled vegetables and a molasses ginger cake.
HONOR THY HERITAGE
On both visits, resident livestock had already been slaughtered when we arrived at the farm (in the fall a slaughtering workshop had been held that very morning), so we were spared that level of historical realism. But it made me really think about where my food came from.
The piece of lamb loin that Stacy was slicing into strips was raised only a few feet from where I was standing, and was alive only a few days before.
Animals and plants raised on the farm are mostly heritage breeds, by the way. The farm takes part in cross-breeding programs to sustain heritage populations.
A lamb freshly killed means there are some parts that won’t last without modern preservation techniques, so those parts need to be cooked right away. In the fall workshop we were honored with the “pluck”—lungs, heart, liver and pancreas—and the head. The pluck was made into “lamb hash.” It was boiled, chopped, spooned onto a bed of sliced bread soaked with a sauce made from the water the pluck had been boiled in, and topped with the boiled and roasted head. But don’t worry: There was also a farm-raised chicken, stuffed with full slices of buttered, herbed bread, and spin-roasted by the fire on a string, for those who were less than enthused about the lamb.
In fall, it was full dark outside before we were even halfway done with our dinner preparations. Indoors it was dim, even with two rendered- fat candles to work by. At times, like when we had to pick ashes off the lamb’s head after it accidentally fell in the fire, participants couldn’t resist using their cell phones for added illumination. Connie explained that back in the day, the meal would have been finished before dusk for this very reason.
Salad might not be the first thing you think of when you think about Colonial-era meals, but they had them. In fact, they could be surprisingly colorful, despite a lack of tomatoes (which wouldn’t be widely appreciated until later in New England history). Thyme, borage, nasturtium and calendula flower petals helped make a salad that was tasty and delightful to the eye.
Both desserts—the Shrewsbury cake and the molasses ginger cake— were cooked in a Dutch oven seated on a bed of hot coals on the hearth, with more embers piled on top.
At the end of the workshops, everyone helped to clear the table and wash the dishes. All wash water and some organic refuse went out the window. Other scraps went in a container called a “piggen” to be given later to the animals.
It wasn’t the case when I took the workshops but now, for legal reasons, Coggeshall has to note that no food will be “served” during the event. “The farmhouse kitchen is far from a commercial kitchen, and that’s a state requirement if you’re going to serve food to the public,” museum Executive Director Jon Larason later told me. “However, participants sampling food they’ve prepared themselves in our kitchen is a different thing. They can absolutely do that if they choose.”
In fact, the farm now has access to an off-site commercial kitchen and plans to offer selected menu items for participants to sample at the end of the workshop, so you’ll have the option of trying an 18thcentury receipt prepared the old-fashioned way, or the same, prepared the ultra-sanitary 21st-century way.
I would encourage anyone interested in cooking and history to take one of these hearth-cooking workshops. For a few hours you can travel back in time for an immersive 1799 culinary experience. But bring your cell phone, just in case.