Cooking class aims at producing cast-iron chefs

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Lisbon - posted Mon., Mar. 4, 2013
(L-r) Paula Adams, Kim Sperry and Steve Lawhead work on stuffing a whole cabbage head. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
(L-r) Paula Adams, Kim Sperry and Steve Lawhead work on stuffing a whole cabbage head. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

A brisk fire roared in the stone fireplace as cooks bustled about in the primitive kitchen. By the light of a window, Rebecca Bisson was creaming butter and sugar together by hand – literally. “The butter was a little cold; it was harder to soften it,” she explained as her fingers nimbly spread warmth through the dough, intended for tea cakes. A pitcher of mulled wine sat on the hearth to keep warm, and Paula Adams scraped up hot coals and heaped them in a pile under a cast-iron skillet, where a batch of codfish cakes sat sizzling.

The menu and the cooking techniques were straight out of 1810, but most of the cooks’ clothing gave away the actual date as 2013. It was this year’s installment of the John Bishop Museum’s annual open hearth cooking class. Two of the Lisbon Historical Society’s members - Adams, the society’s president, and Secretary Kim Sperry - were dressed in period attire of Empire-style cotton dresses, ample aprons and prim white caps. The rest of the “kitchen staff” wore present-day clothing as they mixed batter, cut up asparagus, and stirred the iron kettle full of corn chowder.

In the main kitchen, Steve Lawhead, of Lisbon, speared a whole cabbage head with a large iron fork and plunged it into a kettle of boiling water to blanch the leaves. After a few minutes, the cabbage was removed to a plate and its center was carefully carved away, making a cavity to fill with a seasoned beef and onion stuffing. Then the leaves were wrapped back over the stuffing, the cabbage was enveloped in cheesecloth, and the package returned to the fire to finish cooking.

Nearby, Adams raked the hot coals of a nearly-spent fire out of the small, elevated bake oven built into the wall of the hearth. Once the space was cleared, she slid a ceramic turk’s-head mold filled with Sally Lunn bread into the heated space and replaced the oven’s metal door.

The event serves to raise money for the upkeep of the 200-year-old Bishop House, said Adams. “This is an adult fundraiser, because you can’t have enough tag sales,” she said. Tuition for the four-hour course and the resulting sit-down dinner help pay for the structure’s utilities and maintenance. “We try to keep it buffed up and in good repair,” she said.

The Lisbon Historical Society has been running the classes for at least a decade, said Adams. Some participants come as part of a group or corporate team-building activity, and many participants are repeat customers. “We just had a member who celebrated her 10th cooking class,” she said. The society also conducts annual hearth-cooking sessions with fifth-graders from Lisbon Central School.

“It’s a nice way get together with the family,” said Lawhead, a Historical Society member who brought four members of his family with him to the class. Justin Lawhead, who had attended the class before, recalled making a boiled pudding – not the modern custard-like dessert, but a suet and flour dish wrapped up in a ball in a cheesecloth bag and cooked in boiling water. “It looked like a basketball,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to be solid, but we unwrapped it and there it was.”

The menu is designed to closely copy a typical meal of 1810, the presumed year that the Bishop House was built. “It’s hard to have seasonally-appropriate dishes for this time of year,” Adams said. The asparagus, served with a creamed horseradish sauce, wouldn’t have been possible in the 19th century with local produce until later in the spring, she noted.

The next installment of the hearth cooking class is slated for Saturday, March 23, from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Adams said that a few openings are still available for that session; potential students should contact her at 860-887-8052.

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