Kitchen History: The Colonial Country Kitchen

by Sandra Tarbox
Colonial fireplace
Courtesy photo Cooking in a colonial fireplace

In colonial America, the kitchen, with its large cooking fireplace, was the focal point of the home. Snug, inviting, with the aroma of cooking food on the hearth, the kitchen provided shelter, warmth, and nourishment. It was where generations converged, the center of production for the family’s provisions. A woman might have kneaded bread while watching her daughter churn butter and her own mother stirring a pot hanging on the hearth crane.

The hearth fire was rarely allowed to extinguish. Its management was crucial to the success of the household. At night it was dampened down, to keep it alive, by covering it with ash. In the morning it would be raked open to expose the hot coals to a new fire.

Simmering was done by hanging numerous pots on trammels from an iron crane, hung from the jamb, that swung from back to front for easy reach. Once there were enough coals, a long-handled shovel, known as a peel, was used to scoop out embers to form individual piles on the hearth, much like the burners on stoves today. A three-legged kettle with a flat lid, often rimmed, could be placed on the embers and topped with coals to make an oven.

Colonial Kitchen
Courtesy photo Colonial Kitchen Tools

A pan on a trivet might cook mushrooms in a sauce. Meat could be roasting on a spit or broiled in front of the main fire. Alongside the fireplace was often a large oven, built in the shape of a beehive, that could hold many pies and loaves of bread.

One day a week was set aside to bake in the beehive oven. First it would be filled with small pieces of wood and a small fire. As it burned, larger sticks of wood were added to build a very hot fire. After about two hours the wood and ash were removed with a rake made for that purpose, and the oven floor cleaned with a wet rag. The items to be baked were placed on the floor of the oven with the peel in order of the cooking time required. The meat pies, which would take the longest to cook, would go in first, followed by bread, then cakes. The little cakes (that we now call cookies) would be put in last, then a door affixed to hold in the heat.

A medium-sized household would have had numerous pot and kettles made of iron, and spiders and skillets of bronze or copper. These were all heavy items that made the task of cooking and preparing food by the heat of the fire all that much more strenuous. A spit would be used to roast meat or a griddle to grill steaks. Adjustable trammels on the crane held pots of soup or boiling puddings. Skimmers, ladles, larding needles, long-handled toasting forks, wooden spoons, toasting irons, and a mortar and pestle might have been included in the kitchen bits and pieces.

Colonial Kitchen Spices
Courtesy photo Colonial Kitchen Spices

Central to the room was the table, possibly a trestle, 5 to 8 feet long and 4 feet wide, kept scrubbed clean. This would be used for visiting, sewing, preparing meals, eating, butchering meat in the fall, canning and salting foods for storage, and stringing herbs for drying. Scattered around the room would be chairs, benches and perhaps a small table or two. On the wall a wooden crane might hold a blanket to be swung behind a chair to keep the heat from the fire close by.

Courtesy photo Colonial Pantry

The pantry was often a small windowed room lined with shelves holding herbs, crocks of salt, sugar, flours, sweetmeats, ripening cheese, bread, pies, and ale. Some may have had a sink with a drain out the back wall for the washing of dishes or for cleaning root vegetables. Water was hauled in a wooden bucket from the well in the yard. A cupboard stored bowls, cups, and utensils for daily use, and a wall dresser might hold an orderly row of pewter, red wear and serving platters on its shelves, its drawers filled with linens.

Seasonality was the way of life — there were no grocery stores nearby. February, March and April were called “The Months of Want.” It was up to the women to plan ahead to make sure their larders and root cellars had adequate food supplies to last until the first green sprouts of spring. No matter the season, the kitchen was active with the preservation of food.

The women spent long demanding hours in the summer and fall working in their kitchens to put up preserves, bottle vinegar, and make pickles, sauces, jams, and jellies. When the animals were slaughtered, the women butchered the meat. Nothing went to waste, the ears and tails flavoring beans and the hooves used to make gelatin. Intestines were cleaned and used for making sausages. Select pieces of meat were smoked in the smoke-house or fireplace then hung from the rafters until needed.

The underground root cellar was the forerunner of the refrigerator, used for storage of vegetables gathered from the gardens. Because the hens stopped laying in winter, eggs needed to be stored in a box with clean sifted ash or in a crock with a solution of slaked lime. Some meats were brined in crocks and stored in the cellar.

During the apple harvest the women brewed a small amount of cider for household use. Cider and bread-making went hand in hand. It was the bottom of the keg of cider that held the perfect yeast to dry into small cubes to be used as bread starter. As winter progressed and the temperature dropped, dozens of sweet and savory pies were baked for later use. They were wrapped in linen and frozen in the attic in boxes topped with rocks to keep out marauding critters. All of this done with hopes the foods would last until spring without rot or mold. Housewives needed to be ever-vigilant in checking on the food supplies during the winter months.

The spring rains of April and May heralded the arrival of the first green shoots of fiddlehead ferns, green onions, spinach, asparagus, chives, and rhubarb. A new season of putting up food began. Hens began laying again and the cows freshened, providing milk to be turned into cheeses. The men took advantage of the spring runs of spawning fish and the women pickled, brined, and salted them to dry. A housewife also had to prepare three meals a day.

Morning meals were heated leftovers, a potage, fried pudding or cornmeal porridge. Dinner was eaten in late afternoon, followed by an evening meal of leftovers and perhaps a freshly baked pie. The reason for what we might call untimely eating was the need for daylight — having to work by the fire with only candlelight was difficult at best, dangerous at worst. Dinner was the largest meal of the day, consisting of pudding or forced cabbage boiled in a cloth hung in a large pot of water, roasted meats on a spit, perhaps onion pie baked in a kettle, cheeses, toasted bread or rolls, pickled and preserved items from the summer and fall harvest, washed down with ale.

The kitchen was in perpetual motion, filled with endless chores. It is a cheering thought that at the end of the day the kitchen might have also been filled with the music of voices or a fiddle to help soothe the weary hearth cook and her family.

Scallops in Shells

Ingredients

Scallops
Onions
Cullis*
Pepper
Salt
Parsley
Nutmeg
Juice of a lemon or orange

Preparation

“Take your scallops from your shells, blanch them well, and take off the beards, provide some small old onions, peel off the two outer most skins and fry them of a nice color, and tender, cut the scallops in thin pieces, put them into a stew pan with the onions well drained, a little cullis* and pepper, salt , parsley and nutmeg; stew all together a few minutes, squeeze the juice of a lemon or orange, and put it into the shells, sift over a little fine grated bread, but not enough to hide what it is, color with a salamander, or in an oven, and serve them to the table hot.

This is a genteel good entremets, with a sauce a la Béchamel, with a little Parmesan.”

William Verral, The Cook’s Paradise (1747)

*Clear meat or poultry broth