Thanksgiving in Maryland happens in — and around — the hearth
The cookhouse on Waltz Farm sits 50 yards from where owners John and Sally Waltz live in Smithsburg, Md., but it’s practically a spacewalk away from the universe of modern convenience. Windows, candles and a fireplace provide its light and heat. Built in the mid-1800s, the 12-by-24-foot wooden structure bears patinas and aromas of the past. John’s ancestors did their laundry there, butchered their hogs, rendered lard and made scrapple.
And they cooked in its well-proportioned hearth. Sally fell a little in love with the idea of it all as soon as she got to explore what was inside.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, having a separate building to prepare food helped keep the main house cool in warm weather and reduced the chances that a kitchen fire might destroy the whole house, Sally says.
“I made a deal with John way back when: ‘If I can have this for cooking, you can build other buildings on the property,’ ” she says. “It took us a year and a half to clean it out. There were so many good things in there, antique things, just piled up. It was a wonderful game, sorting through the treasures.”
Barrels, firkins, long-handled utensils and 20-gallon iron kettles; these stirred a curiosity about rural Maryland’s culinary heritage and helped spark Sally’s passion for open-hearth cooking. The Waltzes use the cookhouse about four times a year. At Thanksgiving, it comes to life as they produce a fine feast.
Now married for almost a half-century, the couple had been husband and wife for seven years when they moved to the 153-acre farm in Washington County to raise sheep and hogs. The land, which remains far from any main road, has been in John’s family since 1774. It promised to be a different way of life, one that a girl born and raised in two small, close-knit communities nearby was not up for.
“It was a time of adjustment,” says Sally, 68. “I missed having neighbors. There was too much solitude. It wasn’t as pleasurable as it is now.”
Surfing the Web does not fill her hours between farm chores. Sally figures she might waste too much time that way and doesn’t miss having the connection. Instead, her pastimes are contained in tidy, distinct spaces that dot the Waltzes’ wide yard. They provide a continuum for a simpler, more strenuous life, one that suits her positive, can-do demeanor. Her gated herb garden is punctuated with nasturtiums. There are separate sheds for potting plants and for drying herbs and flowers. Crayola-colored spools of thread and baskets of wool and yarn line the shelves and floor of her one-room sewing and weaving house.
Inside the kitchen in the main house, a hutch holds Sally’s collection of redware, earthenware pottery that turns brownish-red when it’s fired in the kiln. Some of the casseroles, round-bellied stew pots, bowls and plates are plain, and some are adorned with Old World flourishes.
The redware prompts a story; both she and John, 71, have a way of charming a visitor with their gentle humor and thoughtfulness. Nuggets of history are dispensed like treats. Sally puts this talent to work as a volunteer docent for the Rural Heritage Museum in nearby Boonsboro.
“In the late 1800s, women liked to keep dishes that conveyed a sense of where they lived,” she says. “So when traveling potters came through, they would stop at the side of the road to dig up the clay that they would shape into various wares to sell on their next visit. The small craters they left behind were called ‘pot holes’ — and that’s where the term originated. Isn’t that wonderful?”
The Waltzes ferry much of their redware down to the cookhouse when they prepare for Thanksgiving, stacking it next to where cast-iron Dutch ovens and skillets sit in front of a tall cupboard full of irreplaceable farm relics. Corn bread molds and baskets hang from the rafters. As part of the Waltzes’ rehab, the cookhouse walls have been insulated and spackled to look like old plaster. To the left of the fireplace, John has stacked two wheelbarrows’ worth of wood, which he estimates is about the amount it takes to cook food all day on Thanksgiving, starting with breakfast.
“We’re usually up at 5. We need to get a good fire going to heat up the building,” Sally says. By the time her grown son and his family and other relatives arrive at 9 a.m., a hunter’s stew is bubbling, the hominy has cooked down and the griddle for making pancakes has glowing coals beneath it.
She began cooking regularly on the hearth about two decades ago, after she attended a workshop at a Lancaster, Pa., museum. The instructor roasted a turkey in a reflector oven. “It’s ingenious, really,” she says. Lightweight and made of tin, the oven’s demi-barrel shape accommodates a bird or roast that’s secured to an iron spit. The oven is placed near — not over — the fire. John says the secret to open-hearth cooking is maintaining steady, low-level heat.
“I don’t like it to get too vigorous,” he says. “You want the fire going so that it produces coals that go under and on top of the kettles on the hearth.” They own two reflector ovens, also called tin kitchens: the one for roasting meats (specially made, with a “W” punched on the door) and one with a shelf, for baking, called a biscuit baker. (See the accompanying box about where to find a Colonial-style roasting reflector oven.)
“There were a lot of tinsmiths around, so most middle- and upper-class people would have had this type of oven,” she says. “It would have been taken very good care of, because the ovens were kind of expensive, as they are now. Women would pass down their tin kitchens when their daughters got married.”
When Sally cooks an 18-to-20-pounder (her preferred holiday size), she loosely stuffs the cavity with celery, carrot and onion. She skips the salt (for health reasons; “nobody misses it”) and the pepper. Over the course of five hours or so, the bird’s dripping juices collect in the bottom curve of the oven, where they can be drained into a gravy boat via the oven’s built-in spout. The trussed turkey browns evenly — like the 360-degree crisp skin of a deep-fried specimen — without the cook’s having to turn the spit or reposition the oven. A hinged door on the back affords an easy glimpse. The turkey that John carves has a slight smokiness. By 4:30 or 5, when everything’s ready, Sally says, it’s dark enough that she has to hold candles close so her husband can see what he’s doing.
She relies on time-tested recipes for the rest of the meal, which includes green beans slow-cooked with bacon and onion; a rich sweet potato souffle; a simple, moist corn bread; mincemeat pie, whose filling is drier and meatier than most fruity, stewed variations, plus pumpkin and apple pies; and fresh apple cider. Sally has baked pies inside kettles at the hearth, but the Thanksgiving pies are made 24 hours in advance in her kitchen, so people can snack if they get hungry in the middle of the day.
Dinner is served by the warmth of the cookhouse fireplace, as guests sit cozy at the table or settle into the room’s rocking chairs, wooden settee and benches. Candles glow at the windows. The spread includes a dish familiar to folks who live in rural Maryland and Pennsylvania, but it raises the eyebrow of a city dweller: a pot of pickled beets, with peeled, whole hard-cooked eggs mixed in.
Sally makes them as her mother did, and their presence invokes another story: “Chickens didn’t lay year-round,” she says. “So people in the late 1700s and early 1800s would preserve fresh eggs by first dipping them in boiling water, then greasing them with lard. The eggs were placed in firkins, pointed ends facing down, between layers of salt. It was important that the eggs didn’t touch one another. They could last for three to four months.
“Two layers of six eggs each would fit,” Sally says. “And that’s probably why eggs are still sold by the dozen today.”
She smiles. “Isn’t that wonderful?” As told by Sally, yes, it is.
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