Baking The Old-fashioned Way At Historic Cold Spring Village In Cape May County, The Bakers Follow Methods That Date From The 1800s. And They Let Visitors Take A Turn At The Oven And Hearth.

Posted: September 16, 1990

COLD SPRING, N.J. — "It takes about two hours of burning soft woods to fire up the oven," said Don Pettifer, director of the Historic Cold Spring Village in Cape May County. "That generates enough heat to get the bricks hot."

Once heated, the huge brick beehive oven retains enough heat to bake and preserve several batches of different foods over nearly 24 hours.

That means that, on baking days (usually Wednesdays and Saturdays), visitors to this 22-acre complex of 18 historic homes and workshops, are almost certain to find something interesting in the works in the restored kitchen or coming out of the four-foot diameter oven or off of the six-foot hearth. This day it is a modest menu of breads and rolls, deep dish apple pies and baked beans in the oven and roast chicken on the hearth.

The assembled village is typical of a South Jersey farm community in the early to mid-1800s. And the local foodways - the growing, preparing and preserving of foods of the period - are an important part of the culture being preserved here.

Here, stepping back in time, we can catch a glimpse of life as it was before coal and cast iron cook stoves came into widespread use. Prior to this period, cooking methods had changed little in centuries. Over then next hundred years, we would move from open fires and brick ovens to coal and gas and electric and finally the first microwave appliances.

In these simpler times, a family's food needs revolved around the bake oven, and few could afford to fuel it more than once a week. No one could afford to waste much of the heat it produced. Homemakers had to be organized.

But then, the early homemaker's work week was planned well in advance. Her cycle of chores usually allowed one day for baking, another day for doing laundry, the next day for ironing, and so on.

On baking day, breads go into the hot oven first. Modern home ovens cycle up and down, fluctuating hotter and cooler, but the brick oven stays hot for many hours, cooling very slowly.

"That's why breads bake better and crusts are crisper in the brick oven," Pettifer explained.

Even after a batch of breads, the oven remains hot enough to bake cakes and pies, followed by cookies and casseroles and baked beans. As the temperature declines, the oven can take more delicate foods like custard. And over the final hours, a warm oven will dry herbs or fruits for long term storage.

It was Pettifer's interest in early foodways that led to adding the oven. The large outdoor ovens and sometimes smaller ovens built along with the hearth were used until cast iron cook stoves made inroads in the mid-1800s.

"I went up to the Richmondtown restoration on Staten Island for lessons in brick oven baking and open hearth cooking and they told me all the things that were wrong with their beehive oven."

When he returned, working from old brick oven designs, he started on plans to reproduce a working beehive oven, one without the flaws, at Cold Spring Village. The fire is built right in the oven, then the ashes swept out with a wet broom before the food is put in. Breads bake directly on the oven floor.

It has been three years since the oversized oven with its sand-filled double dome of brick, was built in the backyard of the village's Spicer- Leaming House. There it is convenient to the kitchen of the 1740 home. The oven can hold 40 loaves of bread or a dozen large pies at one time.

"When I came here this building was an antique shop," Pettifer recalled, ''but when I saw the hearth I thought it was more important for visitors to see some of the real like. Cold Spring itself grew up around a grist mill.

This fall, Pettifer plans to offer classes in brick oven baking and open hearth cooking at the village.

"We want these to be small, hands-on, classes," he explained. "They would probably be just one day, intensive courses for four or five people at a time."

Pettifer might have wished for more of that kind of training when he started experimenting with the new oven.

"Once I fired it up real good, put in some breads and about 15 minutes later started smelling carbonized dough," he said, recalling a batch of rock- hard, blackened loaves.

Pettifer has since learned to better judge temperatures.

"You can tell when it gets to about 450 degrees because then the soot begins to burn off the inner walls of the oven," he said. By this measure, an observant cook not only can test the oven temperature but also take advantage of the earliest self-cleaning feature.

Early cooks had another way of checking oven temperatures. They would put their hand in the oven and count to 12. If she couldn't stand the heat for a count of 12, the oven was too hot. Much longer, and it wasn't hot enough.

Although Pettifer often works with the brick oven and experiments with new recipes, he acknowledges that he is an anomaly in this setting.

"Women did all the cooking back then," he notes. "In fact, women were often burned and disfigured by fire catching the hems of their skirts."

And true to the period, volunteer Peg Smith has been demonstrating early cooking methods at the village for three years, making everything from soups and stews to breads, baked goods and pickles.

But there are no written recipes.

"Most of our recipes we do by feel, like the bread," said Pettifer after setting a redware baking dish of rolls out in the sun for a second rising.

And true to the period, they catch their our own yeast from grape and apple leaves on which wild yeast grows.

All the kitchen pottery and redware used at the village is produced on site, using a special lead-free, sand glazing method.

Meanwhile, the dried beans from last years harvest have been soaking in water for several hours. They will be mixed with brown sugar, chopped tomatoes and bits of cooked bacon and onion and go into the oven for several hours of slow baking.

"You could leave the beans in the oven until the next morning and they'd still be warm," said Pettifer.

"As we get farther along with the harvest," he adds, "we'll be bringing in our fresh beans from the garden, kidney beans, Jacob's cattle beans, ple lima beans and a climbing pea.

"Our corn had visitors last night, little furry ones with black masks and long tails," Pettifer quipped, noting the racoons fondness for the grain.

With the dough out of the way, Smith begins preparing the apples for pie filling, using an antique peeler more efficient still than any modern tool. When dried, the apple peels make good kindling for the fire, notes Pettifer

Working without recipes, results will vary and this day the apple pies came out rather soupy. Delicious to be sure, but swimming in sweet syrup, in part

because the cooks experimented with using flour rather than tapioca as a thickener.


Historic Cold Spring Village, off Rt. 9, south of Cape May Court House, is open daily through September and on Oct. 6, 7 and 8 for the South Jersey Folk Festival. For information, call (609) 898-2300.

Other presentations of historic cooking methods and foodways are offered at historic sites throughout the area. Among them:

The Chadds Ford Historical Society has bee hive oven and fireplace cooking demonstrations at the John Chadds and Barns-Brinton houses on weekends into October. For a schedule, contact The Chadds Ford Historical Society, Box 27, Chadds Ford, Pa. 19317. Or call (215) 388-7376.

The Historic Houses of Odessa in Delaware offer open hearth cooking demonstrations on Saturdays through October. For a schedule, contact Historic Houses of Odessa, P.O.Box 507, Odessa, Del. 19730. Or call (302) 378-4069.

Pennsbury Manor has demonstrations of hearth cooking at the reconstructed home of William Penn in Bucks County. For information, contact Pennsbury Manor, 400 Pennsbury Memorial Road, Morrisville, Pa. 19067. Or call (215) 946-0400.

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