Historical gastronomist Sarah Lohman likes cooking with fire. Real fire, made of flaming, popping wood, not the contained and controlled-kind that hisses out of your gas range or grill at home.
Cooking with fire is largely a lost art, relegated to kind-of-lame demonstrations by costumed actors at places like Colonial Williamsburg or the occasional, almost mythical camping companion who actually cooks over a bonfire rather than eating peanuts and raisins for dinner.
Sarah wants to change that. She’s offering four-hour hands-on hearth cooking classes at Washington Park’s Old Stone House in Park Slope, on Sunday May 6th and May 13th. No costumes here – Sarah’s plan is to turn Brooklynites on to the primal fun of making food with fire and to the practical knowledge that comes with it that she swears has made her a better cook at home.
We spoke to Sarah this week about fire and food.
So Sarah, why a class on cooking with fire? What’s the appeal of the open hearth?
I think most people associate cooking with fire in a hearth with going to a history museum and seeing someone in a costume stirring something in a pot hanging over a fire. I wanted to give people a chance to learn a little more about how it actually works.
Are you going to wear a costume?
Ha ha. No, I will not. I’ll be in Brooklyn in my borough-appropriate skinny jeans cooking on the hearth.
How did you learn how to cook with fire?
It’s something I’ve learned over time, starting years ago when I was working at a museum.
Why the Old Stone House in Park Slope?
Well, they have a hearth, which helps. And I’ve done a few other cooking demonstrations there. I cooked a Revolutionary War-era Thanksgiving dinner, and about a year ago I did a breakfast demo, cooking three different kinds of pancakes over an open fire. Three hundred people showed up for that one – there was a line of people waiting for pancakes stretching way out into the park!
What made you decide to take it to the next level, offering a more hands-on half-day class?
I worked on an event with the Farm on Adderley a few months ago. There was a girl, or maybe I should say, a young woman about my age there. She was telling that she was obsessed with hearth cooking. She had a working fireplace in her apartment and whenever she had a fire, it made her want to cook! That was the first time it ever occurred to me that this was a skill somebody living in an apartment in New York City would actually have any interest in learning. I had never really thought of it as practical knowledge.
I’ve been working with Brooklyn Brainery on our Masters of Social Gastronomy series in which we pick a specific food and delve into the history, biology and chemistry behind them, and through that I’ve found there’s really a pretty strong community of people out there who just want to learn stuff. They want to spend a couple of buck and learn something just for fun on a weekend. So that kind of inspired me to try a low-cost, low-commitment half-day class.
What’s interesting about cooking with fire? What do you like about it?
On one hand, there’s the practical aspect of it. If you know how to cook with fire, you can cook anywhere. We could be out in the middle of the mountains and I could cook you dinner with these kind of primal cooking skills. I can build a fire and cook you dinner. But the other part of it, that’s in some ways more interesting to me, is that understanding how to cook with fire really reinforces these very basic kitchen skills that we’ve kind of lost with technology. I’ve found that it’s made me less uptight in my own kitchen.
By cooking over fire, you learn how to know when food is done using all of your senses – using sight and smell and touch rather than waiting for a buzzer to go off. You don’t need a thermometer or a timer or a low/medium/high dial.
The question I get every time I do an outdoor cooking demo or talk, literally every time, is, “How do I know when it’s done?” To us, to modern cooks, the idea of doneness has become associated with time. It’s become an equation of exact measures of time and temperature. Today, the food is done when the timer goes off. But in reality, food isn’t done cooking when a timer goes off, it’s done when it’s done. It’s done when it smells right, looks right, and feels right.
And cooking with fire is fun. It’s a kind of primal experience that we’ve lost touch with. In a gas or electric oven today, you use a dial to set a specific temperature, set a timer for a specific cooking time, put your cake inside and walk away. When cooking with fire in a hearth, you have to be continually monitoring the fire to eb sure you’re maintaining enough heat. It takes more attention, more activity. In order to make something hotter or colder, you don’t turn something up or down, you move it closer or farther away from the fire. It’s just a different way of thinking about cooking that changed when we got gas and electric stoves.
So the class is focused on the logistics of cooking with fire. How do you build a fire, how do you look at it and feel it to tell how hot it is in the context of cooking something? How do you maintain heat throughout the cooking process? Where do you put your pots or skillets? How do you use sight, smell and touch to know when the food is done? Afterwards you’ll be able to go camping and cook a full meal, and you’ll just have a better understanding of some of those primal aspects of cooking that will help you to be a better cook at home.
A lot of those things are hard to learn from a book. You really need to see it demonstrated to feel comfortable. But those are the thinks I really like about it. I’m really curious to see who shows up! Ha ha.
What are the key tools to cooking with fire? A Dutch oven?
It’s pretty flexible. You need some sort of cooking vessel or spit, a spoon, a lot of wood and a couple of bricks or stones that you use to elevate your pot or skillet or whatever, to control the heat.
Of course, you can heat up a can of beans over a fire. But Dutch ovens are really versatile – for anything from stewing to making soup or baking. And we’ll be doing some dishes in cast iron skillets.
It’s always good to have a cast iron skillet in your kitchen, or several in my case. I’ve been collecting them for a while. If you take care of them they can last hundreds of years. And even if they haven’t been taken care of, they can almost always be revived.
There’s a place called Dead Horse Bay – it’s a strip of beach in Jamaica Bay that used to be used for landfill in the early 20th century. Now, because of erosion, the ocean is exposing all this trash from the early 1900s that didn’t decompose.
I was out there looking around one time with a friend, and we found a cast iron griddle. It was caked with rust and sand and sea creatures, but he said, “I’m going to take this home and I’m going to turn it back into a skillet.”
And he did. He took it home, scraped all the stuff off, rubbed it with wax or lard – some kind of fat – then put it in the oven at a low temperature for a while, which allows the fat to seep into the cast iron and create a seal. The next time I saw him he gave it to me, so I have a cast iron griddle that was literally pulled from the ocean after being thrown out a hundred years ago, and I’m cooking on it again.
So historically speaking, when did stoves replace open hearth cooking?
In New York City, hearths were largely replaces by coal and wood stoves. We all cooked over fires and hearths for thousands and thousands of years, and then in the 1830’s cast iron stoves started to become much more readily available. A good percentage of Americans had stoves by the 1840s, particularly in New York.
And actually, by the time of the Civil War, there was a strong nostalgia for the hearth – for the open hearths of their grandparents. You see that nostalgia manifested in all kinds of ways at that time.
The transition from cooking on a hearth to a wood or coal stove was actually pretty easy. You were still effectively cooking with fire. People still had the primal understanding of how to build fire, fuel them, and cook with them. That didn’t start to change until we got gas and electric stoves in the twentieth century.
Sarah is offering her open hearth cooking classes on Sunday, May 6th and Sunday, May 13th, from 11am-3pm, at The Old Stone House in Washington Park, in Park Slope. Classes are $45. Purchase tickets here.