History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line

Cooking Stoves: Dutch Ovens, Deep Iron Kettles Highly Treasured

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

Cooking and baking over the basic "open hearth" was a way of life in colonial days. Bread was baked in brick ovens, which necessitated the homemaker to have a separate fire, and to get the most out of the heat stored in the bricks. An alternative was to use a "bake-kettle."

Now known as a Dutch oven, this appliance required fresh coals top and bottom, with a renewal every half hour for the period of the baking. This chore was a great sacrifice when many times other homespun tasks took priority.

Many times utensils such as a pie container were absent. Using a large fresh cabbage leaf for this purpose solved this problem. Apple and peach pies, not too juicy, were easily baked in them. The extreme heat of the oven would bake the crust to a nice brown firmness from which the dried cabbage leaf was easily removed.

Salt-rising bread was widespread. It was described as delicious and could be made without yeast, certainly a great benefit when the supply of yeast ran short.

It should be noted that a "spider" was the handiest and most commonly used of all pioneer-cooking utensils. It was just like a skillet, except that it had a very long handle. It also had legs attached so it could be set right over the fire.

There was also an iron rim on the cover so that hot coals could be piled under the spider and on the top of the lid. No flame was allowed to blaze around it.

Deep iron kettles, which the pioneers brought with them, were highly treasured, for many years iron was not available west of the Alleghenies. The griddle was much like the spider, but had no legs or cover.

Some of the truly American foods consumed by the pioneers were sweet pone, johnnycake, cornbread, hominy, and mush and milk.

Corn pone was baked in a Dutch oven or a covered skillet set in a bed of fiery coals. Preparation was handled in different ways. One lady of the last century has left her legacy of making corn pone by scalding the cornmeal, putting yeast into it, and then letting it set all night.

Rising the next morning, she then thickened the mixture with more meal and cooked pumpkin, using about the same amount of pumpkin as there was meal already mixed.

Salt was then added along with maple sugar, and the whole combination was baked in a covered skillet on the coals in the old fireplace.

One gentleman recollected having gone to an inn one time in the backcountry for a meal. An impoverished woman told him that she only had corn- pone. He exclaimed: "Corn-pone, there's nothing in the world I like better than corn-pone! Corn pone baked in an old Dutch oven! There's nothing to compare with it!"

Another method of making the pone was to lighten the meal with buttermilk and aerated salt eliminating the pumpkin. Sometimes a little lard was used for shortening.

Originally the pioneer prepared his own soda. Firing a hollow elm log did the method. With extremely intense heat the ashes were melted down into cakes, which could be kept for use.

Hickory ashes were sometimes leeched, the lye boiled into potash and baked until it dried and whitened. This mixture, along with buttermilk, produced appetizing biscuits, battercakes and corn bread.

Preparation of a substantial amount of meal and water, with a little lard, soda, and salt added, produced a grand treat called "hoe-cake" or "dodgers." Maple sugar could be added if one wanted to sweeten the delicacy. When the pumpkin ripened in the fall it could be cooked and added as an additional taste.

Molding of the mixture was by taking as much as could be conveniently held in both hands and tossing it from hand to hand until it assumed the preferred shape. It would then be put on a smooth board or stone and patted down to the desired thickness and placed at an angle before the fire.

When thoroughly baked on one side it was taken off with a knife and turned over to be baked on the other side. After baking it was sometimes dipped into cold water and promptly rolled up in a cloth to steam a while. The fresh and sweet treat was eaten with butter and milk.

The name "Hoe-cake" was derived from the Southern Negroes who used a hoe on which to bake it.

"Johnny-cake" came from the word "journey" which in turn was undoubtedly interpreted from the French "journee," meaning daily.

An old fashioned way of preparing the meal was to pound it fine and sieve it by a crude method which got out the husk and left in the heart of the kernel. This procedure made it more palatable and healthier. Grain crushed on stone-burrs by means of a water wheel produced meal that was much sweeter.

Other dishes of Native American origin were hominy and samp. Another tasty and healthy treat was parched corn with a pinch of salt.

One proud lady spoke of her mother's breadbasket. It was a round closely woven piece of basketry resembling a mixing bowl. The dough was prepared and for its last rising, it was divided and placed in these roomy baskets that had been lined with a well-floured piece of clean linen.

When ready for baking a long handled paddle was used to turn over the dough. The linen cloth was removed, leaving a nice round ample loaf ready for the oven.

Biscuits served with fresh butter and maple syrup, or honey, were a breakfast that could be well remembered for the rest of one's life. The rough stage roads and their jolting ways would easily help the digestion of the weary traveler.

Drying fruit was carried on in a large scale, mostly by the rays of the Sun. However, an occasional "dryhouse" was assembled for the purpose of drying fruits artificially.

This structure was sometimes built over the springhouse. Dried apples, peaches, plums, pears, cherries and apricots were dried in this method. Cherries were pitted and dried in sugar.

In the early days meats laden with fat were extensively used for consumption. Cucumber pickles were used to neutralize their effect on the digestive system. Puddings and pies were most common as foodstuffs of the trendsetters. Found in many antique shops and amongst the relics of old families were found the common "custard-cups."

Common beverages found on the tavern table were coffee, tea, milk or water. However, in late summer and autumn, sweet cider was always nearby.

Alcoholic drinks served at meals were unusual, unless provided at a banquet, and even then it was not always accepted.  

The Cast-iron Cookstove

Another type stove was brought about in the 1830's, the cast-iron cook-stove. It changed the way meals were cooked and consequently took over in the American kitchens.

Twenty years later so many designs had been developed that the housewife could have her choice of models. Some included reservoirs on the sides of the stoves, which would furnish a continuing supply of hot water. Also included was a system of grates and baffles that could hold either wood or coal for fuel.

Advantages excelled by the multitude of the cook stove over the open-hearth. The former contained the heat of the fire, which in turn would spare the cook's clothing, and would contain the heat for more practical use of the fuel.

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