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Mastering the Fire Element in Colonial Kitchens

During my hiatus from the Arizona heat this summer, I traveled back in time to the open hearth kitchens of our early colonial ancestors.  The pictures in this article were taken at Pennsbury Manor, the reconstructed home of William Penn, Proprietor and First Governor of Pennsylvania.

I can say with certainty that working in the 17th century kitchen was not for the faint at heart.  The primary  task to master would be to understand fire. If you did not understand how fire operated then you would not be able to control the fire.

The kitchen was a busy place and the main cook would rise early to prepare the fire.  She would know that hardwoods such as oak and sugar maple are the best woods to get a good burn going, a burn that generates an even and intense heat, as well as a good supply of hot coals. In Colonial America finding the right wood was not a problem, we had an abundance.

The large iron bracket in the hearth kitchen is called a crane.  Cranes were used to maneuver  a variety of pots and pans within the controlled fire. The “S” hook placed on the crane would allow the cook to suspend pots over the fire and the hinged crane was used to swing the pots and pans off  the fire safely. Stewing, simmering and boiling could be done using the crane but they also had frying pans with long handles and little legs called spider pans that could sit on the coals. If the pot did not have legs than they could use a trivet with legs to sit on the coals.  Some pots had an indent on the lids which were used to hold hot coals so that the pot itself turns into a small oven with heating elements on top and bottom.

Operating the fire correctly was certainly important for safety reasons but also the fire had to generate enough hot coals for baking bread in the oven.  The coals would be shoveled from the fireplace into the oven and the opening beneath the oven was a warming oven.  Sometime it could take up to 4 hours to ready the oven for bread making, but once the bricks were  hot enough than the ashes would be swept out and the bread placed in the oven using a flat shovel similar to what you see today in wood-fired pizza shops. There were no controls on the oven, so the cook would have to place her hand in the oven to check for readiness. These were very brave women. Scalding accidents were common and the threat of death by fire was always present.

Oh, and did I mention the cooks in the kitchen dressed in wool?  It sounds crazy, I know. Wool was known for its very low flammability rate. Wool naturally extinguishes itself and will singe rather than catch on fire. It will also not melt or stick to your skin like synthetics will.

One aspect about colonial living that we could benefit from mirroring is the fact that they didn’t waste anything.  When the bread was done and the oven started losing its heat, they would use it to dry out fruits and herbs.  And when the wood had turned to ashes, well, they used ashes to create lye which in turn was used to make soap.  We talk about sustainability in today’s world with catchy phrases like “reuse, recycle, reduce” but our founding mothers and fathers of colonial America lived it.

There is much to see and much to learn at the Pennsbury Manor.   While William Penn’s main seat of government was in Philadelphia,  Pennsbury Manor was Penn’s “green country home” and sits on the bank of the Delaware River about 25 miles north of Philadelphia.  If you are in the area, the Manor is well worth a visit. Please check the website to see the times of the tours as well as the fun events scheduled throughout the year.  If I happen to be on duty as a tour guide during your visit, I will be happy to show you  around the Manor and to introduce you to  the Legacy of William Penn.


Clare Marie Kronemeyer, AKBD is a kitchen and bath designer, a freelance writer in the design industry and a Traveling Grandmom . She entered the world of design as a furniture designer and has been practicing kitchen, bath & custom furniture design for over 15 years. With a degree in Interior Design and certification through NKBA, she offers creative solutions to problem areas and she can be reached via her website: www.asyoulikeitdz.com or by email: claremarie@asyoulikeitdz.com.

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