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