How to Cook Over a Hearth

Since my daughter is really into wild skills her grandma enrolled her in some classes as a Christmas present — including a full day of hearth cooking at the Hagood Mill in Pickens, SC. This class is taught by Carol Bozarth through the Pickens County Museum of Art and History.

We booked 2 slots for the April 13th class (yes, I am late writing about this one).

Photo Caption: The interior of the original wood cabin was picturesque and entirely functional. Surely women who had to do this every day would be baffled to know that people with modern conveniences pay money for the experience. We started around 10:00am and didn’t eat until late afternoon (and that was with 6 of us working nonstop)!

I’m a bit of a class junkie and can easily say this is one of the best I ever attended! In addition to Rayna’s Christmas present, it turned into an early Mother’s Day gift for me. It was clear that Carol truly loved her subject and valued her students.

The atmosphere was perfect. Multiple historic buildings are housed on the site and it is nice to walk around, even when nothing is going on. There is also a nature trail, a gift shop, and a small museum being built over an ancient petroglyph that was discovered on the property. The public is invited to come out every 3rd Saturday of the month when the mill hosts a major event tied to their corn grinding day — more than 25 different demonstrations of homesteading skills and old time music are on display. It’s like traveling back in time!

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We arrived at about 10am and headed for our “classroom.” Apparently, this cabin was renovated and used for student housing in the Clemson area before being moved to the museum site and restored to its original state.

Photo Caption: At the end of the day we ate our meal on the porch.

One of the first things we learned was how to start a fire (though we did cheat and use matches). Carol showed us a couple different methods for stacking wood and tinder to get it to light quickly. Then she delighted Rayna by putting her in charge of making things burn.

Rayna did a good job!

Photo Caption: Rayna was in charge of getting our cooking fire started.

It was morning, but before we drank any coffee we needed to roast and grind the beans by hand. It’s not something you’d see if you went to Starbucks instead…

Photo Caption: This is what green coffee beans look like. They split and enlarge when roasted.

I was impressed at how difficult it is to shake a heavy copper pot at the end of a long handle over an open flame. My arms gave out almost the moment I began (it didn’t help that I had poison ivy blisters on my palm, but that thing was heavy)! We took turns shaking the pot, but Carol did most of the work. It took almost 10 minutes to roast the beans… that may not seem like a long time but I can see this as a very effective body building exercise.

Photo Caption: Our fresh roasted coffee beans smelled (and tasted) delicious!

Our coffee also had some roasted dandelion roots mixed in, courtesy of Carol’s prior labors. Rayna thought it was the best coffee she’d ever tasted!

Photo Caption: Rayna enjoys a well-earned cup of coffee.

Before we could begin our cooking and baking, we needed to prepare the fats. This butter churn may have been a little large for the amount of butter we were making but it definitely got the job done. Or rather, we all got the job done since we took turns working the paddle. Rayna did the lion’s share of the butter churning and was quite proud of the results.

Photo Caption: The cream is beginning to solidify in the churn.

I love that Carol makes an effort to find cooking and serving ware that is accurate to the period. It made us feel like we were time traveling that day. Our finished butter is packed into the crock in the foreground, with the small wooden spoon.

Photo Caption: The finished butter was sweet and delicious!

Hickory husks and jar lids make adorable improvised spice containers. I half expected some squirrels to come in and start sprinkling pinches into the pot, a la Disney style.

Photo Caption: Some of our ingredients were laid out for us but some we had to gather or make by hand.

After we ground our own cornmeal and made our own butter, it was time to start baking.
Hearth baking is accomplished by accumulating hot coals in the fire and then piling them on top of a cast iron Dutch oven.

Photo Caption: Believe it or not, it’s very important to burn the butter. This gives the cornbread a delicious, caramelized brown crust with a delightfully crisp texture.

I was so surprised that the cornbread looked exactly like the kind our Grandmother Holcombe makes. She cooks hers in a cast iron skillet and stresses the importance of putting in the butter when the pan is the right temperature. I’ll have to do a post that details how she makes it and include the recipe.

The first time I tried fluffy or sweet cornbread as an adult I was disappointed. The one I grew up with is very savory, dense, and has a gritty texture. Its dominant flavor is corn instead of sugar or wheat flour.

Photo Caption: This, to me, is how cornbread is supposed to look. The brown crust is crisp and richly flavored.

It was ironic that we could see the water mill out the window while we ground the corn with a hand crank. SC law requires that all the corn ground at the mill be USDA approved, so we had to do our little batch ourselves.

Photo Caption: We put the cornbread outside to cool before turning it onto a wooden tray. I can definitely understand why you’d need a miller. Grinding corn by hand is a workout!

We wild collected the greens for our salads, including violets for a colorful topping.

Photo Caption: Violets and dandelions were collected to add color to our wild spring greens salad.

Rayna was instantly thrilled to see chickweed on the menu, as it is one of her favorite edible weeds. It’s best before it goes to seed, but we eat it at all stages.

Photo Caption: Chickweed, dandelion, violets, wild onions, lamb’s quarters, and dock leaves made up our salad. The onions were marinated in the vinaigrette dressing which softened them and muted their sometimes harsh flavor.

We ate dock leaves in our raw salad as well as cooked. They make quite a mess of greens! Carol decided to leave out the traditional animal fat so that everyone could really taste the lemony flavor of the dock. It was one of Rayna’s favorite things on the menu! She was pleased to learn that we have lots of sorrels, including dock, growing in our garden.

Photo Caption: Wilted dock greens next to chicken and dumplings

Unfortunately, we forgot to take photos of the chicken and dumplings but they’re inside the lidded pot next to the greens in the above photo. We cooked the chicken down to get broth while the dumpling dough was prepared on the side. Carol had us experiment with mixing it without “real” measuring utensils, since that is how people did it back then. The rolled out dough was sliced into small, irregular dumplings with a knife.

The funny thing to me is that again, this dish came out just like home cooking. My mother’s chicken and dumplings are almost indistinguishable from the ones we made over the fire (and oh, so delicious).

Photo Caption: Need dessert? The sweet potatoes were cooked in layers of ashes and coals and served with local honey and our fresh churned butter.

Potatoes or sweet potatoes are a simple side dish for hearth cooking — you just bury them in the coals! Sometimes we use this trick when we go camping. If you don’t like the ashy skins you can wash them or just treat them like a bowl.

Photo Caption: Rayna loved the wild salad so much we thought she’d never stop eating it. Some of the class participants weren’t as excited about the wild greens… most people are used to lettuce. Fortunately, Rayna grew up eating unusual vegetables and wild foods so she was already accustomed to the texture and vibrant flavors.

Since taking Carol’s class we’ve been a lot more inclined to toss our salads in their dressing instead of pouring it over the top before serving. With sturdy wild greens it helps to tenderize them if they’re coated in a thin layer of vinaigrette.

We make pretty salads on a regular basis but this one seemed to outshine the others. There’s something about working hard to put food on the table that makes you appreciate it so much more fully. Chatting around the table with Carol and the other students was a wonderful way to close the day.

Photo Caption: Mother’s Day came early for me! I hope we can turn this into a tradition of finding a day class to take together every spring.

In case you have any doubt, we thoroughly recommend that you sign up for one of Carol’s classes at the Hagood Mill. They’re seasonal so you should check the museum’s events listing to see when new ones are posted (glancing at their schedule, I notice that our friend Robin McGee has herbalist classes available right now).

Now we need to build a cob kitchen so we can invite friends over to try this in the yard! We have an indoor fireplace, but I’m not sure the hearth is large enough.


Eliza Lord

I'm a Greenville, SC native (the Appalachian foothills) who wears the hats of Greenville Master Gardener & Upstate Master Naturalist. I love to write about food and sustainability.

5 thoughts on “How to Cook Over a Hearth”

  1. Donna - June 6, 2013 6:27 pm

    This looked like a wonderful experience. I always wanted to experience this type of living. It was a simple life, but one filled with hard and rewarding work. I love your photos documenting the day of hearth cooking.
    Donna´s last blog post ..The NWF Conservation Debate

    1. Eliza Lord
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - June 7, 2013 10:11 am

      I’ve been thinking a lot about simplifying our life lately. Maybe not to the point of turning off the electricity… but the less we have going on, the happier I seem to be.
      Eliza Lord´s last blog post ..How to Forage in the City

  2. Mark Willis
    Twitter: marksvegplot
    - June 7, 2013 2:44 am

    Sometimes the old methods are actually best. These days time is the most important factor, and people don’t want to spend much time on cooking – which is a shame, because food prepared in the old-fashioned ways is often tastier, and almost always more nutritious. My wife Jane has done several of these “Mother and Daughter” classes, which are great for bonding!
    Mark Willis´s last blog post ..Stand by to repel boarders!

    1. Eliza Lord
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - June 7, 2013 10:15 am

      We eat less and less pre-processed food every day. It used to seem overwhelming to do things like make a pie crust or ferment our own sauerkraut… Now, I’d never buy those things ready-made.
      Eliza Lord´s last blog post ..How to “Permiculturefy” an Urban Farm

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