Colonial Cooking: When THEY Won’t Let You Use the Hearth

Excerpt of an article written by Clarissa F. Dillon, 2003, Past Masters in Early American Domestic Arts, Haverford, Pennsylvania.

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Courtesy DAR Museum

There are many reasons why some colonial cooks are faced with sites that won’t let them use the hearth. Through the presentation of period food preparations, even without a fire, visitors can perhaps go away with a greater understanding of lives of people in the past as well as an appreciation of their skills.


Cucumbers were usually pickled to last until the next harvest. Most pickling receipts called for heating the vinegar before pouring it over the prepared fruit, but it is possible to find some that worked “cold.”

The best Way to pickle Cucumbers

Take the least Cucumbers, rub them well, and put them in a Pot or Barrel, then put in a Round or Layer of Dill or Fennel Seed in Branches, and upon that a Layer of Cucumbers so as not to touch one another; strew on them some Ginger, Mace, and Cloves finely beaten, some whole Pepper, and a little Salt; then lay in another Layer of each, and fill up the Pot with white Wine or Elder Vinegar. This Pickle serves for Grapes, or other Things.[1]


Dairying is an excellent activity for “cooking without a fire.” If you have a program that goes on all morning, churning can be the first step in a more complex preparation. After making and paddling butter until it is completely clear of buttermilk, you can move on to an odd but evidently desirable eighteenth-century dish. You’ll need to bring two hard-boiled eggs with you.

To make Fairy Butter.

TAKE the Yolks of two hard Eggs, and beat them in a Marble-mortar, with a large Spoonful of Orangeflower Water, and two Tea Spoonfuls of fine Sugar beat to Powder; beat this all together till it is a fine Past[e], then mix it up with about as much fresh Butter out of the Churn, and force it thro’ a fine Strainer full of little Holes into a Plate. This is a pretty Thing to set off a Table at Supper.[2]

Grinding Spices With a Cannonball— No, Really!

If pounded in a mortar with a pestle, peppercorns bounce out all over the place. Grinding, a circular movement with pressure, is better. With a cannonball, spices can be pulverized in a small wooden dish quickly and effectively. By rolling it under the palm of your hand, you can “grind” the peppercorns using the weight of the cannonball with very little effort on your part. You can also hang a small iron pot from the crane, which has been swung out into the room, put the spice(s) in it, and then put in the cannonball. By gently rocking the pot back and forth, you make the cannonball go round and round, pulverizing the contents, again with very little effort on your part. There are period references to this: “Note, That the Seeds are pounded in a Mortar; or bruis’d with a polish’d Cannon-Bullet, in a large wooden Bowl-Dish.”[3]

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Clarissa F. Dillon, “Colonial Cooking: When THEY Won’t Let You Use the Hearth” in Debra A. Reid, ed., Proceedings of the 2003 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 119-133.

[1] Martha Bradley, The British Housewife:- in 2 vols (London: printed by S. Crowder and H. Woodgate… [1756]; facsimile reprint in 6 vols by Prospect Books, Tomes, UK, 1998), Vol. IV, p. 574.

[2] Glasse, op. cit., p. 142. There is a very similar receipt, using twice as much of the ingredients, called “French Butter” in Smith, op. cit., p. 101. Her final instructions do differ: “…when it is well mix’d force it thro’ the corner of a coarse cloth, in little heaps on a china-plate, or through the top of a dredging-box.”

[3] John Evelyn, Acetaria. (London: Printed for B. Tooke…1699; facsimile reprint by Prospect Books, London, 1981), p. 102. Cf. Nott, op. cit., n.p. [M 72} and R. Bradley, op. cit. [Part II], p. 36.

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