Have you ever cooked a whole chicken over an open fire? Or baked a cake in a lidded cast-iron pot covered in burning embers? Just in time for the Fourth of July – the day the U.S. celebrates its independence – take a step back in time to see how our Colonial forefathers and mothers put dinner on the table. Hang in until the end of this post for a couple of recipes used in this Colonial Cooking demonstration. Today we’re in Princeton, N.J., my home town and a place where you can’t throw a stone without encountering some facet of our nation’s early history. In specific, we’re stopping at the Princeton Battlefield State Park, the site of one of the fiercest battles of the American Revolutionary War. It was here that on January 3, 1777, General George Washington gained his first field victory over British troops after a series of American defeats in the summer and fall of 1776. Today, the 85-acre park includes the battlefield, the common grave of British and American dead, and the Thomas Clarke House and farms. From time to time, special demonstrations such as this recent event featuring Colonial cooking are held. Battle re-enactments that make history come alive also take place here periodically. The house is named after Thomas Clarke, a Quaker farmer whose family lived there during the Revolutionary period. Here’s the master bedroom with its sparse furnishings and fireplace. The house contains many tools and implements that were necessary for daily life. Imagine spinning cotton on one of those spinning wheels. And then weaving it on this loom to make fabric for clothing, or sheets or handtowels. How we take things for granted today. I am always intrigued by old samplers. This one, dated 1816 was stitched by Rachel Clarke, a relative of the original owner of the house. More about history later. Let’s get back to the food. We were lucky to arrive just as the chicken was finished cooking and these folks were about to take it off the rotating spit. They cooked up a bunch of other food too, including these beef pasties – shredded beef in small pastry pouches. An onion pie was cooling off inside the house too. To finish the meal, a lemon tea cake awaited – maybe a little more browned on the top than you might like. But then, it’s not that easy to control the temperature when you can’t see what you’re cooking and you have no idea whether the hot wooden embers above those lids are at 375 degrees or 450 degrees. The chicken looked like it had been cooked to perfection. The cavity was stuffed with rosemary and no other seasonings were used. I was salivating from the aromas inside the house, but didn’t want to be so bold as to ask for a sample, since it seemed like the workers were the only ones eating. Oh well, they did give me two recipes that I can share with you at the end of this post so I’m grateful for that. But before I get to the recipes, let me show you a little more inside the Thomas Clarke House. The first floor houses a museum with lots of Revolutionary War artifacts. I forgot to tell you that after the battle (in which the Americans prevailed by the way), the Thomas Clarke House was used as a hospital for both American and British soldiers. American General Hugh Mercer was wounded during the battle. Unfortunately, even though he was attended by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a famous Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the general died here. An oak tree that was believed to have stood on the field since the battle was later dubbed “the Mercer Oak.” When the beloved centuries-old tree died in March 2000, the whole town mourned. Fortunately, an offspring grown from an acorn of the Mercer Oak in 1981 now thrives next to the large stump of the original tree. Although there’s no one in this photo, families flock to the battlefield on warm days to have picnics, fly kites or play games. It’s a far cry from two centuries ago when the bayonets and musket fire were prevalent on the battlefield. Rallying his soldiers as they rode to the battlefield, General Washington said, “Parade with us my brave fellows. There is but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly.” The victory at Princeton concluded the military campaign known as the Ten Crucial Days. Here’s a little summation if you want to learn more about it: For those of you celebrating the Fourth, I hope you have a wonderful day. And here are a couple of recipes made over the open fire at the Thomas Clarke House, adapted for modern ovens: Onion Pie From the Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop Printable Recipe Here 1/2 lb. potatoes 1/2 lb. apples 1/2 lb. onions 6 eggs 1/2 lb. butter pastry ingredients: 3 c. flour 1 t. salt 1 c. shortening (can include up to 1/4 c. butter) 1 egg, lightly beaten 1/2 c. very cold water
- Cut the onions, potatoes and apples into thin slices.
- Lay half of the pastry in a pie pan.
- Spread 1/2 cup butter pats over crust.
- Beat two eggs. Combine separately, 1/4 cup each nutmet, pepper, salt, mace
- Add layers of apples, onions and potatoes until pie is filled, putting some beaten egg and spices between each layer.
- Spread the leftover butter on top and cover with crust.
- Cut a few slits in top for steam.
- Cook in preheated 350 degree oven for 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until golden brown.
(Be sure to slice the apples and potatoes thin, no more than 1/8”, so they cook through. Lemon Tea Cake Recipe Makes four loaves printable recipe here 2 cups butter (1 pound) softened 4 cups sugar 1 t. salt 4 T. lemon peel, granted fine 8 large eggs 5 c. unbleached white flour 4 t. baking powder 2 c. milk Lemon Syrup 1 1/2 ups sugar 1 cup fresh lemon juice Cook syrup until sugar is completely dissolved.
- Combine flour and baking powder, set aside
- Beat butter, sugar, salt, lemon peel until fluffy
- Add eggs and mix well
- Add flour and baking powder and mix well.
- Fold in milk
- Pour into greased loaf pans
- Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes
- Cool for five minutes after baking, then prick with a fork and pour the syrup over it
Cake freezes well.