Hearth cooking, then and now

By Bob Wood.

For 200 years following settlement, food production was the basic industry of the Goschenhoppen Region. Feeding first their family and hired help, self-sustaining farmers produced enough surplus food to provide for the cities and towns of Southeastern Pennsylvania and beyond.

Until about the era of the Civil War (1861-1865) it’s safe to say all cooking in Germanic Pennsylvania was done on a hearth fire, and family life was centered in the adjoining stove room. Kitchen cooking stoves, as we know them, didn’t exist until the mid-19th century. At first they were small adjuncts to the hearth, but as they became ever larger so the kitchen evolved to be the center of family life, and the stove room evolved into the parlor of the Victorian era.

Central fireplace, Historic Antes House. Goschenhoppen Historians.

The essential fireplace

During the Colonial period most houses in the Goschenhoppen Region were of the old German style which featured a large central fireplace with a rather small log or stone house built around it. While a few of these houses can still be seen in the area, many more are here but invisible, being covered by later additions to the structure. By the Federal Period (late 18th century) the English style of architecture began to be locally adopted which had the cooking fireplace built into a gable wall. (The gable walls are the ones that come to a point at the top).

A central feature of many cooking fireplaces was the crane. A vertical rod imbedded in the masonry at the back of the fireplace held a horizontal arm which in turn could be swung out so the iron pots suspended from it could be tended and then swung back over the hot coals to continue cooking. Most fireplaces had other adjustable chains and a trammel, the common saw toothed device that allowed pots to be raised or lowered. Footed pots, frying pans with legs (called spiders), blacksmith made ladles, skimmers, and a two-pronged flesh fork or two made up the sparse hearth side accouterments.

Sausage frying in a spider pan on hearth coals, Antes House.

Principal foods

Some sources say that the stewpot was the primary source of kitchen fare during the early colonial period. Noodles, gruel, soups, and vegetables formed the bulk of the meal. Amos Long in The Pennsylvania German Family Farm (Pennsylvania German Society, 1972) notes that among the earliest settlers, “Cabbage, onions, turnips, and other root crops were the principal vegetables in German gardens.” These were all boiled. They quickly adopted the Indians’ “three sisters” of corn, dried beans and pumpkins. The advantage of the European root crops and the adopted Indian crops, was that they could be stored for the winter.

Raising food was never easy; but the soil was rich and most of today’s noxious weeds, grasses, plant diseases, and insect pests are alien invasives and were not originally present. Orchards and gardens provided abundantly, but the problem was how to hold the foods for the winter? Root crops could be kept for a few months in the root cellar and orchard fruits could be dried in the bake oven. Kept dry, corn, buckwheat, and cereals could await the miller at any time.

Meat was usually fried or boiled. Fresh meat and fowl were roasted on open coals, but most of the time the available meat had been preserved by salting or smoking and this was boiled or fried.

Potatoes were widely cultivated from the start. But apparently not the tomato. Suspicious of its deadly nightshade family and the fact that pigs wouldn’t eat them made it suspect. In fact tomatoes never played a large part in Pa. Dutch food.

Sugar was expensive so molasses was the preferred sweetener and most farms had some rye-straw bee skeps. But by the end of the 18th century a wide variety of herbs and spices were common at the hearth.

More variety in the 19th Century

Into the 19th century, more varied dishes evolved from the cooking hearth. Nancy Roan of the Goschenhoppen Historian notes: “Cooking on the hearth works well. Anything you can cook on a modern range can be successfully done on the hearth. Utensils (pots and pans) were specifically designed for certain cooking jobs. Reflected heat from the fire and sometimes smoke can be annoying and many cooking jobs require bending—to the floor—to flip the buckwheat cakes or to stir the potatoes frying in the spider, for example. Factors determining what the family ate were not food favorites (as it is today) but the availability of foods and economic conditions of the family.”

By the end of the 19th century and early 20th, most farm wives took great pride in the abundance and variety that came from their large kitchen ranges, and they missed the old cooking hearths not a bit.

Sisters-in-law Ella and Ellen Fretz, Bedminster Township, Bucks County, with their well-polished cookstove, 1948. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection.

Hearth Cooking Class Recipes

Historic Antes House program, September 13, 2008 – recipes researched by Nancy Roan

Corn Cake (Corn Bread)
3 c roasted corn meal
1 c flour
1 c buttermilk
3 T butter
1 c sugar
1 t soda
3 eggs
1 t salt

Roasted Chicken (roasting time about 3 hrs)
Truss chicken to keep wings and legs from spreading and dangling
There must be a place at tail end and breast end for a hook to be inserted in the string.
Hang from nail in lintel or from crane breast down so chicken is front of the fire. Heat must reflect on to chicken.
Place dripping pan under chicken – add 1 c water to pan. Set chicken to turn (wind the string) and be sure to keep it turning. Mid way through – reverse chicken- put tail down.

Hot Cabbage Slaw
Shred cabbage with a knife into fine shreds, then chop into fine pieces.
Measure roughly 8 c., put ¼-1/2 c, butter in pan, add 1 t. salt, 1 c. water and cabbage. Cook until cabbage is tender (about 10 minutes). Stir occasionally. Then add 1 ½ c milk to cabbage, bring to a boil and stir in the sugar and egg mixture. Cook until it thickens. Add ¼ c. vinegar. Taste. Add additional salt, mustard, vinegar if desired. Remove from heat immediately.

Cabbage sugar/egg dressing
Combine ½ c. sugar, ¼ c. flour, 1 t. mustard, 2 eggs, 1 c. milk

Mustard Beans
Wash and clean ½ peck of beans (yellow or wax beans preferred). Cut into 1″ pieces. Cook in lightly salted water until tender. Drain. Clean small brass kettle.
2 c. sugar, 1 ½ c. cider vinegar, 2c. water, 4 oz. yellow mustard
Combine this in the small brass kettle. Bring to a boil. Pour over cooked beans. If beans are cold, put into kettle with the vinegar solution. Bring to boil. Remove from kettle immediately.

Schupp Noodles or Boova Spitz
3 c flour
1 t. salt
2 T. butter
2 t. baking powder
1 c. milk
Beat milk and eggs together. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Stir in egg/milk mixture to form a dough. Flour hands – shape 1T. dough into a small noodle about 2″ long and tapered at the ends. Place on a towel until all noodles are made. Cover. Bring a large kettle of lightly salted water to boil. Drop noodles in, stir, cook 10 to 15 minutes. Drain. Brown in butter in a spider.
(Optional – Beat an egg or two, pour over noodles. Stir to cook egg.)

Goschenhoppen Historian Bob Wood has researched, written and spoken extensively about PA Dutch folk culture topics and can be found at the Antes House during the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival.

4 thoughts on “Hearth cooking, then and now

  1. I would like to know where I can find roasted corn meal in the Hatfield area. I can only find yellow cornmeal which is not good in the Pa. Dutch recipes.


    1. Have you tried searching online for grocery stores that sell roasted corn meal in your area? I did find an online recipe that specifies roasting regular corn meal for 5 minutes in a skillet on the stove top, stirring constantly. An extra step, but maybe worth a try


  2. The recollection of the PA Germans bring back wonderful childhood memories. Having grown up in a 60’s ranch home with two field stone fireplaces, we had hearth cooked meals every week-end, no matter the weather.
    The food was especially good because my father had a large garden. And we canned or froze most of our foods. Our family life and my social life did center around the fireplace. Meals, sleep overs, after sledding warm-ups, and family celebrations were just a few of the activities we experienced near the fire.
    So thank you for the information.
    I grew up with a fabulous family life and I partially contribute that to the hearth fireplaces.


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