At the time when most kitchen planners were designing efficient locations for microwave ovens, Mary Newman of Haymarket, Va., was figuring out how to hide her refrigerator and stove so the only visible cooking equipment would be a working 18th-century fireplace and wood-burning brick oven.
This is because Newman is one of those women with one foot firmly in the future; she's the owner of an ultramodern computer business in Manassas. Her other foot is firmly in the past. She's a history buff whose hobby has become an obsession culminating in the construction of a picture-perfect Williamsburg-style Virginia manor house in the foothills of the Bull Run Mountains at the Evergreen Country Club, on the historic former Robert (King) Carter tract in Prince William County.
This home has all the things that other people go to Willliamsburg for at Christmastime -- dark polished wood gleaming in the glow of firelight; that rush of pine to the senses, the fragrance of cinnamon and cider, bay leaves and orange peel, steamed puddings and baking bread, sage and onion slow cooking with sizzle and smoke.
That is the feeling evoked in this 3-year-old home that has been lovingly appointed by its owners, from the polished antiques to the pegged floorboards and forged rattail hinges fastening the shutters outside.
But for cooks, her colonial kitchen is the marvel -- the result of a long fascination she and her husband Charles have for cookery, herb gardens and antiques.
The focal point is the fireplace, with its swinging-arm crane supporting black iron pots, a shiny tin reflector oven on the floor in front and other antique fireplace cooking equipment -- iron trivet, rakes and shovels for moving pots in and out of the fireplace. In the same fireplace wall is the small rounded opening for a beehive brick oven for wood-fired, radiant-heat baking.
On the opposite wall is a modern double sink, except that it is solid copper with copper faucets. The counter tops and cupboards are gleaming polished dark oak, all custom designed by Newman, with curved doors repeating the Palladian theme followed throughout the house. The real cutting boards pull out from under the counter tops. A marble-topped "hunt board" table has been strategically placed in front of what appears to be another fireplace wall. But this houses and vents the modern cook top, which has the latest in electrical indoor grilling equipment. The real ovens are hidden below behind wood panels.
The refrigerator, dishwasher and ovens are all there, but also hidden behind the same dark oak paneling with forged iron hinges. Fragrant bunches of dried herbs, flowers and more antique cooking equipment hang from the century-old beams.
In front of a large bay window with a view of Bull Run mountain ridge is a large, round, dark oak dining table set with antique quilted place mats.
In this age of radar-wave cooking and ceramic flameless burners, it seems bizarre that anyone could possibly be interested in actually feeding logs into a fireplace to cook a meal. In fact, Newman isn't searing her eyebrows over the fire very often. But she really does fire it up for the holidays, special occasions and sometimes just when they want a pot of chili and some hot dogs.
But think about it a minute. Is she really so strange? There are all these new mesquite grills and bundles of fruitwood chips being sold in the fanciest markets. Indoor electric and gas grills are the latest rage in modern cookstoves. Is another pioneer necessity coming full circle?
Newman is definitely not alone in her aberration. In New England, there has been a surge in inquiries about brick-oven cooking to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. And this technique has piqued the interest of modern restaurateurs, always on the prowl for flavor and authenticity.
All those American tourists in Italy recently came home hungry for the pizzas they had cooked in a wood-fired brick ovens. In Los Angeles, Wolfgang Puck's famous pizzas were achieved in wood-fired ovens where the pizza bakes on the hot flat bricks, developing a crispier, authentially smoky flavor. And in Washington, the four new Italian Oven restaurants in D.C. and Northern Virginia and 3-month-old Il Forno restaurant in Bethesda keep their customers happy with wood-burning pizza ovens.
The Newmans found two masons in Georgia who built their fireplace just by looking at photographs sent from Williamsburg. "They were naturals," said Newman, who had been unable to find any books on the subjects. (Now she was one.) The swinging-arm crane was forged in the blacksmith shop in Williamsburg and the Newmans had to wait for this because of a backlog of orders, another indicator of a growing interest.
Use of the beehive brick oven was achieved by trial and error. They learned to build three successive fires, taking about 1 1/2 hours to heat the bricks to about 450 degrees. The ashes are removed, the brick floor wiped out with a wet cloth, a door inserted. Then there is a wait of 20 minutes for the oven to cool down slightly before the food goes in.
"Beans in first and out last," Newman said of the baking sequence. "Puddings or pies go in the center and cookies in front since they take only about 10 minutes." The beans can be left in overnight, creating that truly slow-cooked bean pot flavor.
Since there is no temperature dial on this oven, there is a trick to getting the fire right each time.
Richard M. Bacon, New Hampshire brick-oven expert and author, uses a timesaver learned in "Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book" published in 1864. She recommended cutting all wood sticks of equal size and length. Determine just that number of sticks needed to heat the oven and then use just that many and no more. Colonial woodsheds were arranged so that one section was reserved for oven wood cut to the proper length and well seasoned.
Ovens evolved slowly for centuries until the mid-1800s. The first settlers brought with them their versions of the cavernous cooking fireplaces of medieval Europe and the outdoor clay beehive free-standing oven designs. But when good clay was found here, homemade brick replaced daubed clay, and ovens, moved from outside to inside, were incorporated into the fireplaces. The oven heat helped during the cold New England winters. There were no design rules. Design depended only on the ingenuity of the local masons and demands of the cook for changes.
Cooking was dangerous. Some early ovens were placed in the rear wall of a fireplace and the cook had to lean across the fire to get to the oven. Death or maiming by fire and scalding water took a toll of colonial cooks second only to childbirth.
The oven began to move to different locations in the house and big families required more than one oven. It was hot work in the summertime and oven locations varied for the seasons. When cast iron became more available after the Revolutionary War, oven designs began to change. Ovens were moved out of the fireplace and higher in the fireplace wall and had cast-iron doors and dampers.
In the mid-19th century, the coming of the wood- or coal-burning cast-iron stoves meant that many of the old brick ovens were plastered or bricked over, to be discovered many years later by home renovators.
Newman is not a dilettante playing around with an expensive hobby. "I don't want to be thought of as a Dolly Dumpling," she says. She works six days a week, has a son in second grade and one in college. Much of her free time goes into community and cultural work.
"Cookbooks," she says, "played a big role in the development of the country. We know that in 1742 at Williamsburg, 'The Compleat Housewife' by Eliza Smith was published, followed by Susannah Carter's 'The Frugal Housewife.' Then in 1796, Amelia Simmons' 'American Cookery' was published in Hartford, and is considered the first cookbook written by an American and published in the United States."
All publishing declined during the Civil War. Then in 1870, she says, there was a cookbook publishing phenomenon to aid victims of the war. After that, women's organizations turned their efforts to other causes, a legacy that continues today with cookbooks written by local clubs to support various charitable efforts.
Newman is planning to write her own cookbook of herb- and brick-oven recipes for a mail-order business she has registered as Haymarket Herb Cottage.
Additional information about building brick ovens or adapting traditional fireplaces for this purpose is available from:
"The Forgotten Art of Building and Using a Brick Bake Oven" by Richard M. Bacon ($4.95 plus $1 postage) from Yankee, Inc., Depot Square, Petersborough, N.H. 03458.
Out of Print, but possibly available in secondhand shops, is the book "Colonial Fireplace Cooking and Early American Recipes" by Margaret Taylor Chalmers (Shoestring Press, East Lansing, Mich. 48823).
Colonial Williamsburg, write to Earl Soles, Davidson Shop, Colonial Williamsburg, P.O. Box B, Williamsburg, Va. 23187.
Mary Newman will answer questions about fireplace and brick-oven cooking. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Haymarket Herb Cottage, P.O. Box 1225, Haymarket, Va. 22069.
Here are some the colonial recipes Newman has collected and adapted for modern use in her fireplace and brick oven (we have adapted them for regular ovens, too): CHESTNUT AND PIGEON SOUP (1783)
Pick half a hundred chestnuts, put them in an earthen pan, and put them in the oven for half an hour, or roast them gently over a slow fire, but take care they do not burn. Then peel them, and set them to stew in a quart of good beef, veal, or mutton broth, till they be quite tender. Take a slice of ham or bacon, a pound of veal, a pigeon beat to pieces, and onion, a bundle of sheet herbs, a piece of carrot, and a little pepper and mace. Lay the bacon at the bottom of the stewpan, and lay the meat and ingredients on it. Set it over a slow fire till it begins to stick to the pan, and then put in a crust of bread, and pour in two quarts of broth. Let it boil softly till one third be wasted, then strain it off, and put in the chestnuts. Season it with salt, and let it boil till it be well tasted. Then stew two pigeons in it, and a French roll fried crisp. Lay the roll in the middle of the dish, add the pigeons on each side. Pour in the soup and send it up hot. CHESTNUT CHICKEN SOUP (6 servings)
1 pound chestnuts
3 slices bacon, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1 small chicken, or Cornish game hen, cut into pieces
Flour for dusting
1 cup ham, cut into small cubes
1 teaspoon mace
Pepper to taste
6 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
6 slices French bread, buttered, toasted or grilled
Parsley for garnish
With a paring knife cut an X on each chestnut. Place in saucepan, cover with water, simmer 5 minutes, drain and peel chestnuts while they are hot.
In a large heavy casserole or Dutch oven, fry the bacon pieces to render fat. Add onion, carrot, parsley, cook briefly until soft and remove to a bowl. To the remaining fat, add chicken pieces that have been dusted with flour. Brown chicken, add ham, vegetables, mace, pepper and stock. Bring to a simmer and cook 1 hour. Add chestnuts and simmer only until chestnuts are tender. (Young chestnuts probably will be tender in about 10 minutes, older ones may take more cooking.)
Place slice of toast in soup bowl with a piece of chicken, ladle soup over and serve sprinkled with chopped fresh parsley. ONION PIE (1747)
Wash and pare some potatoes and cut them in slices, peel some onions, cut them in slices, pare some apples and slice them. Make a good crust, cover your dish, lay a quarter of a pound of butter all over, take a quarter of an ounce of mace beat fine, a nutmeg, grated, a teaspoonful of beaten pepper, three teaspoonsfuls of salt. Mix all together, strew some over the butter, lay a layer of potatoes, a layer of onions, a layer of apples and a layer of eggs, so on till you have filled your pie, strewing a little of the seasoning between each layer, and a quarter of a pound of butter in bits, and six spoonfuls of water, close your pie and bake it an hour and a half. ONION, APPLE, POTATO PIE (Makes one 10-inch pie)
After testing this recipe, we preferred it without the hard-cooked eggs used in the original recipe. We did puff pastry, but any plain pastry can be used.
Pastry for 2-crust 10-inch pie
6 tablespoon butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon mace
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon salt
2 medium potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
2 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 medium tart apples, peeled and thinly sliced
3 hard-cooked eggs, sliced (optional)
4 teaspoons water
Line pie pan with pastry, brush with 4 tablespoons softened butter. Mix together seasonings. Alternate layers of potatoes, onions and apples, sprinkling each layer with some of the spice mixture. Dot with remaining 2 tablespoons butter and sprinkle with water. Cover with pastry, making a slit to allow steam to escape. Crimp edges to seal. Place in 450-degree oven for 10 minutes. Lower heat to 350 and cook approximately 1 hour until top is brown and potatoes are tender. OLD ENGLISH ROUGH PUFF PASTRY (For meat, poultry and game pies) (Makes enough for one 2-crust 10-inch pie)
This is from the out-of-print "Colonial Fireplace Cooking" by Margaret Taylor Chalmers, who formerly taught fireplace cooking at Greenfield Village, an outdoor museum in Dearborn, Mich.
2 1/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup lard or butter
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Ice water (about 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon)
Flour for board
Mix together flour and salt. Add lard or butter cut into pieces the size of large cherries. Cut flour and butter together with pastry blender or 2 knives until butter is in pea-size lumps. Make a well in the center. Add lemon juice and just enough ice water to make an elastic dough. Press into a ball and chill 15 minutes.
Place on floured board and roll into a long rectangle. Fold away from yourself into 3 folds. Seal the edges with the rolling pin. Turn the pastry around so that folded edges are to your right and left. Roll again and fold. Chill 15 minutes. Repeat the process and chill another 15 minutes. Then repeat once more and chill the dough until needed.
Divide dough in half. Seal cut edges and refrigerate the half that will wait. Roll bottom pie crust to fit pan. Repeat with other half for top. Make several cuts in top crust to vent steam. Place second crust on top of filled crust and crimp edges to seal. (Follow baking instructions of Onion, Apple, Potato Pie recipe.) JOURNEY CAKE (18TH CENTURY) (6 to 8 servings)
"Just as good at the end of a journey as at the beginning," is the message on this recipe for a corn bread frequently used by pioneer travelers.
It works well as a bread or for use in corn bread turkey stuffing.
3/4 cup flour
1 1/4 cups cornmeal (yellow or white)
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup vinegar
1/4 cup shortening, melted
Place a well-greased iron skillet into a 375-degree oven to heat.
Sift together flour, cornmeal, soda, sugar and salt. In a bowl, combine eggs, vinegar and shortening. Add to dry ingredients and stir just until moistened. Remove skillet from oven, add batter and return to oven for 20 or 30 minutes or until lightly browned. BAKED BEANS VIRGINIA STYLE (18th Century) (12 servings)
This is a family favorite in the Newman home. She lets the beans cook overnight in the brick oven.
For modern purposes, we reduced somewhat the amount of molasses, sugar and salt originally called for in this recipe. The cooking time can also be reduced by using canned beans.
3 quarts water
4 cups dried great northern (pea) beans, washed, picked over (Discard split or discolored beans and rocks.)
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup dark molasses
1/4 cup dark brown sugar (divided)
1 apple, peeled and cubed
1 cup apple cider
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 large onion peeled, and pierced with 2 cloves
1/2 pound salt pork, in one piece with rind, criss-cross scored with knife on the fatty side
Cover beans with water and let soak overnight. Drain beans, cover with fresh water, cook slowly about 1 hour. Drain, rinse beans with cold water, place beans in large bowl. Mix together salt, molasses, 2 tablespoons sugar, apples, cider, mustard and pepper and 1 1/2 cups boiling water. Add to beans and toss to coat thoroughly. Place onion pierced with cloves in bottom of 4-quart bean pot or heavy Dutch oven. Add beans and press salt pork into top. Cover, cook in 250- or 300-degree oven. Bake about 8 hours, checking every hour and adding a little boiling water when necessary. The water should not cover the beans, but appear as tiny bubbles above the beans. During last hour, sprinkle on remaining 2 tablespoons brown sugar and cook uncovered.