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FAQs of Cooking – Susie Worchester

What are the most frequently asked questions we get when we are cooking? I would have to say that it is how they cooked their food and what method they used.

Basic 18th century cooking can be divided into five methods: bake, boil, fry, roast and steam. One or more of these methods are mentioned in just about every 18th century cookbook that I have found and while some vary a bit in methodology, the end results are generally the same.

First, you will need a fire. Whether in a fireplace or outside, you begin with fire. Clearing the land was generally the first thing that a family did when they moved or acquired a new home place. The wood was used to build homes and buildings but also to maintain the fire for warmth and cooking. Downed trees were also used.

The method that gets the most attention is baking. With no oven, how is it possible to bake something such as a cake or pie? The answer is a cast iron pot with a lid which will tolerate extreme heat. Some may call them a “dutch oven” but after researching the topic, I have concluded that the legless ones were “dutch ovens” and those with legs were called “bake kettles or bake ovens.” The 3 legs at the bottom allow the kettle to be raised enough for ashes to be placed under it as a heat source. Some lids were flat and coals could be placed on top, giving you a kettle that will heat from bottom and top, cooking what is inside of it. This method does take a bit of practice as the lids are tricky to lift off with ashes on them and the kettles should be turned for even heating. They make excellent pies and about any baked good you can imagine. As a space saver, they can be stacked on top of each other, up to three high.


                           The next method is frying, though there may be a few different meanings. Generally, frying is taking some type of fat, heating it up and cooking something in it. Since the fat is flammable, it was generally placed in a cast iron pan, skillet or a “spider” which is a metal skillet with 3 attached legs. Coals would be placed under the skillet or pan and the heat under the pan would cook the food. If there was no spider, then a grid iron could be used or simply place the skillet or pan on bricks or stones with the fire underneath it. The fat used may have been bear fat, suet, lard, butter or any number of animal fats. A sweet oil is sometimes called olive oil.

                                        Roasting is a popular way to cook meat and vegetables. In some cases, such as with eggs, potatoes, sweet potatoes or onions, the items were placed in the hot coals of the fire and allowed to cook. This generally resulted in a blackened, or burnt food but was edible. Roasting of meat could be done with skewers or sticks that were placed close to the fire. Another method used string and the meat or fowl was tied up and hung close to the fire where the heat would cook it. This is a favorite way to demo cooking a chicken but a roast also works well, too. Tin reflection ovens or tin ovens were also a source for roasting meat but they were more expensive and quite the luxury items. Keeping a steady fire is best when roasting.

Steaming food wasn’t used as much during the 18th century but can occasionally be found in cookbooks of the time. It generally involves more than one pot and that one of the pots has holes in the bottom to allow the steam to rise up to the food.

Using these methods over an open fire often takes practice and a willingness to eat a few ashes but the food always seems to taste better when cooked over an open fire.


The Mystery of Scaffolds and Pokes – Susie Worchester

Malinda Smith was born in the mid-1800s in a large one room log cabin in Overton County, Tennessee.  Some years prior to her birth, her father, Larkin Smith, had purchased this cabin along with farm land, a grist mill and a log dam.  The grist mill did brisk business as their neighbors near and far brought their corn and other grains for grinding.  But, right before Malinda (Lindy) was born, tragedy struck when Larkin went blind.  There was no choice—Lindy and her 4 siblings would need to step up to help their mother, Peggy, run the farm.  The older children chopped corn and picked beans.  They peeled apples for drying and fetched water.  One daughter, Ellen, cooked dinner in the fireplace even though she wasn’t big enough to lift the pot of water over the fire.  Then there was the grist mill.  At first it was Peggy running the grist mill.  Sometimes her sons could help lift the grain, other times she had to do it herself.  At 6 years old, Lindy was sent away to live with her uncle and Grandfather.  She was gone for 7 years but at age 13, she returned home where she helped her mom and sister run the grist mill.  A few years later, Lindy ran away with a fiddler she had met at a gathering, but the marriage was troubled and the guy left her.  She returned to her family farm for the rest of her life.

Lindy was very successful in running the farm and the mill.  A story handed down through the family tells of a peddler who visited Lindy and observed the well-run mill and a wonderful garden filled with beans, beets, sweet potatoes, corn, cabbage, cow peas, tomatoes, pie plant, potatoes and much more.  He continues to describe her farm:

All these things were ripe and ready, and there were four old scaffolds out in front of the house with stuff drying on them.  One was full of apples for Lindy still had the orchard Larkin Smith had started.  On one of the other scaffolds she had the seed drying that she would use next year.  And that was of everything she planted.  Then she had lots of beans out that day and some blackberries, about the last of the season.  Drying was the only way women round here had of keeping things for the winter.  There weren’t any glass jars for canning then, so they just dried everything they could and hung it up in pokes or on strings.  Onions and peppers and shuck beans could be strung on strings and hung on the porch wall, but stuff like dried apples or blackberries had to go in pokes.  Lindy’d been washing her pokes, so they were all hung out on the fence that day, a good many of them seeing as she had to spin the thread and weave them herself.  I’ve heard many a woman say she reckoned she wouldn’t have a dress for a while longer because the apples were plentiful that year so she’d have to use her cloth for more pokes. (Harris and Lee, p. 41)

My first thought after reading this was—what are scaffolds and pokes?   I started asking people I met, have you heard of pokes?  Turns out a few people knew what they were and what they looked like.  A gentleman at a museum said he used to carry his lunch in a poke—a cloth bag.  He said that he grew up with that word.  Of course, the passage above does say pokes are made from homespun fabric.  Then I took a closer look at my book, “Granny Lindy”.  She would spin up cotton thread in the winter, but would wait until summer to weave it into cloth on the loom that sat on the front porch of her cabin.  Sometimes she would weave enough cloth to make a dress but other times, all of the cloth went to pokes or patches for clothes (Harris and Lee, p. 47).  So Granny Lindy’s pokes were cotton bags!

Scaffolds were much harder to figure out.  I found a receipt for drying peaches in the 1839 historic cookbook, “The Kentucky Housewife”:

“Select fine large cling-stone peaches that are ripe, but firm; peel them, cut them from the stones in large slices and spread them on a scaffold in the sun, and turn them over once a day till they get dry; then put them in sacks and expose them occasionally to the sun, to keep them clear of worms.  You may dry them on a kiln more speedily, but they are not so nice as when dried in the sun.  If you dry them with the peelings on, wash them before you cut them, and wipe them with a cloth to get off the fuzz.” (Bryan, p. 348)

I looked through the book but found no descriptions of a scaffold, but on the internet, I discovered an interview with Mrs. Will Palmer, a 66-year-old woman from Appalachia in 1939:

“Hmm, we used to dry our fruit, we’d gather our apples in of a day and peel our apples of a night and put them out on a scaffold, had a plank scaffold to put them on and dry them, go to it occasionally and stir it, and we’d fill our scaf-, the scaffold about every three days, and when it got pretty dry, we’d take it off on the cloth and lay it around the sun and fill our scaffolds again, we used to dry beans, string them up and dry them, do yet sometimes, and sweet potatoes, we’d dry them and dry blackberries and all such as that, such stuff as we can now we used to dry, we didn’t have cans…”

Then I found an 18th century account of a scaffold that gave even more details.  J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur described one on his farm near Chester, New York in 1782:

Next day a great stage is erected either in our grass plots or anywhere else where cattle can’t come. Strong crotches are planted in the ground. Poles are horizontally fixed on these, and boards laid close together. For there are no provident farmers who have not always great stores of these. When the scaffold is thus erected, the apples are thinly spread over it. They are soon covered with all the bees and wasps and sucking flies of the neighbourhood. This accelerates the operation of drying. Now and then they are turned. At night they are covered with blankets. If it is likely to rain, they are gathered and brought into the house. This is repeated until they are perfectly dried. It is astonishing to what small size they will shrink. Those who have but a small quantity thread them and hang them in the front of their houses. In the same manner we dry peaches and plums without peeling them, and I know not a delicacy equal to them in the various preparations we make of them. By this means we are enabled to have apple-pies and apple-dumplings almost all the year round. (Crevecoeur, p. 281)

All of this information about scaffolds led me to build a small version of a scaffold to demonstrate an old method of drying fruits and/or vegetables.  I think I solved the mysteries!


Bryan, Mrs. Lettice. 1839. The Kentucky Housewife: Containing nearly Thirteen Hundred Full Receipts and many more comprised in other similar receipts.  Facsimile edition published by Applewood Books, Bedford MA.

Crevecoeur, J. Hector St. John de. 1986. Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America. Penguin Books, pp. 281-285

Harris, Margaret K. and S.R. Lee.  2005.  Granny Lindy.  Overton County Heritage Museum.  Livingston, TN.

Palmer, Mrs. Will.  1939. Appalachian English website by University of South Carolina College of Arts and Sciences (