This time of year, many museums offer open hearth cooking programs and demonstrations to illustrate how people cooked generations before the microwave – or even the oven! - was invented.
For many, it is a highlight of the holiday season to learn how food was prepared throughout history – and maybe even try a sample or two...
Christopher Kenney, Director of Education at the Wm. McKinley Presidential Library & Museum, offers a variety of cooking experiences throughout the year. But it is the fall and the winter months when people most appreciate open hearth cooking.
Kenney became interested in cooking over the fire five years ago. He attended a special training program at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, NY, organized by the New York State Historical Association. He has continued to hone his skill over the years by reading all he can about historic cooking, and never missing a chance to share his knowledge with the public.
“It’s important to understand how people lived and what they had to do every day just to prepare their meals,” Kenney says. “The act of cooking is a great deal of work, but I get all of my ingredients from the store. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people had to grow their own food, mill their own flour, and slaughter their own animals.”
Just starting the fire in the morning required knowledge and skill. "They used to gather all of the hot embers into the center and cover them with ashes to insulate and keep the heat in," says Kenney. "The next morning they could use the hot embers to rekindle the fire." This was called "banking the coals."
In the Museum’s “Street of Shops” there is a reconstructed cabin from 1805, complete with an operational fireplace and brick side oven. Kenney recreates history in this space and provides a “first person connection to the past” with all the sights and smells of a busy pioneer household.
Kenney offers a “Kids in the Kitchen” program where students bake their own loaf of bread and make butter by shaking cream in a jar. It is always popular and usually has a waiting list.
Kenney often provides a cooking demonstration as part of the Museum’s special events. He cooks gingerbread and hot apple cider for the Annual Holiday Open House, and prepares a full meal for McKinley Day, the annual celebration of President McKinley’s birthday. The Museum has also started offering dinners after hours.
When doing classes and demonstrations, visitors are often astonished that the food actually cooks. “Some are surprised with how fast it cooks,” Kenney says. “Generally the cooking times are the same as your oven at home, but the temperature of the fire is not as precise so cooking times can vary. It takes practice and experience to know when things are done.”
While the fire is used to heat pots hanging on a crane over the flame, the glowing embers provide an equally important heating source. They are piled on top and underneath a Dutch oven to create a "convection oven" type heat that cooks the food inside.
His favorite recipes are apple cobbler and “bubble & squeak,” a cabbage dish with bacon, onions, and apples that is out of this world! The recipes take longer to prepare because everything is made from scratch – nothing out of a box here!
Cooking over the open hearth is an important historic craft to preserve, and Kenney thoroughly enjoys it. “I like the reaction of people when they see a pie come out of a Dutch oven and it’s golden brown on top, or when the meat roasting in a tin kitchen is perfectly pink inside.”
And the taste buds have fun too! “I just think food tastes better when it’s cooked in cast iron,” says Kenney, “and all the butter that goes into the recipes makes it taste better too!”
If you’d like to try your hand at open hearth cooking, these are some of the cookbooks Kenney uses in his programs:
Kenney uses Lodge brand cast iron cooking equipment, like the following:
You can also get all the equipment you need at Lehman’s, a well-known supplier of reproduction hearth and home equipment for the Amish community. (See link at top right)
Look for an open hearth cooking program at a museum near you!