The Fire and the Feast

The Fire and the Feast

Aficionado of all things historic, Scott Hanson does Thanksgiving in early-19th-century style.

By Hannah Holmes
Photographed by Michael Piazza

“Seven hundred fifty degrees,” observes Scott Hanson, stooping to peer at the thermometer inside his beehive oven. “Five hundred is perfect for searing a turkey.” The whites of his eyes are red.

With a small shovel, he begins scraping orange coals out of the oven. His face is as bright as the coals, which creak with heat as they tumble into a back corner of the fireplace. Stray embers fall on the bricks and on Scott’s boot. His Thanksgiving guests discreetly shuffle their chairs back from the hearth and wait for the oven to shed 250 degrees.

Waiting in this case is like watching a historical reenactment while sitting in a sauna. Scott is a noted architectural historian, and his home, the Whitten House in Topsham, is a restoration in progress, to be featured in his forthcoming book (the working title is Restoring Your Historic Home: A Comprehensive Guide). One wooden cabinet spills forth cast-iron pots and pans collected from yard sales and thrift stores. Two more are bursting with historic china. There is a freshly tiled bathroom down the hall, but in the front parlor, faded flakes of 1830s wallpaper dangle from the horsehair plaster. The dining room woodwork is sporting a fresh coat of paint that costs $200 a gallon and was shipped from Holland.

As his guests soften in the heat, Scott scrapes a few of the glowing oven coals to the center of the fireplace and kindles a fresh cooking fire. There, he’ll prepare the side dishes of a traditional autumn meal. The scent of burning arm hair perfumes the air. He has misplaced his bright, modern cooking gloves somewhere in this house full of antique furniture, antique tools, antique Christmas toys, and antique reference books.

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Open-hearth cooking has all but disappeared in America, but not here, in the 19th-century home of Scott Hanson. An architectural historian, Hanson is restoring his old house, an ongoing project that included rebuilding the fireplace and masonry oven. There, he prepares an entire Thanksgiving feast, skillfully nudging hanging kettles in front of the flames and setting pots and pans atop discrete burners made from small piles of coals.


Why spend 16 hours firing the oven before even starting to cook dinner, which will take another two sweltering hours and will scorch your eyeballs?

Until the mid-1800s, every house in Maine was built thus: stoveless. Three times a day, women arranged coals on the hearth to create “burners.” On these, and on a crane over the open fire, they boiled potatoes, fried bacon, stewed apples, and so on. On baking day, they fired the beehive oven with wood for a few hours, the bricks absorbing enough residual heat to bake a week’s worth of bread before exhausting its fury.

Scott Hanson built his career around Maine’s historic architecture, with a stint as the city of Portland’s preservation planner and, currently, as a consultant on historic rehabilitation projects. That background drives his interest in old-fashioned cooking methods. When it comes to the food itself, Hanson’s partner Andrew Jones, a trained cook, is the good-humored quality-control specialist.

Although this house is nearly 200 years old, it served as a library during the latter half of the 20th century and never had what you’d call a kitchen until Scott bought it in 2003 — well, the kitchen didn’t come until 2009, corrects his partner, Andrew Jones, a trained cook who agreed to live with the flaking wallpaper but not with Scott’s solitary hotplate.

How did 19th-century women not catch their long skirts on fire while raking these coals? They wore wool clothes, Scott says, which are sweaty but not particularly flammable. Not until the arrival of light, cotton clothing did cooking injuries really take off. Fortunately, the arrival of the “kitchen stove,” which confined flames to an iron box, soon followed. It took a while longer for the cookstove to grow legs and achieve counter height, Scott says, because women were so accustomed to squatting when they cooked.

So, why not cook Thanksgiving dinner on a modern stove? Why spend 16 hours firing the oven before even starting to cook dinner, which will take another two sweltering hours and will scorch your eyeballs?

Well, Scott knows this guy in Limington, Richard Irons, who is a fireplace restorer of national repute. (Scott’s personal network is dizzyingly vast — his dinner guests, for example, include the guys who raised the heritage-breed Kentucky Bourbon Red turkey that’s now spitting fat in the 500-degree oven.) Since Scott was restoring this house, he hired Irons to reproduce the original firebox, hearth, oven, and chimney. And once the masonry was in place, well, wouldn’t it be a shame not to use it? One of the iron S-hooks holding a kettle over the flame was unearthed on the property and put back in service.

Also discovered were shards of Blue Venus transferware, which Scott has branded the Whitten House pattern, and which he has since collected in sufficient quantities to serve Thanksgiving dinner. (Scott was recently elected president of the national Transferware Collectors Club, transferware being that English china featuring flowery scenes of town and country.) A dozen of these frail little 150-year-old bowls he now fills with the stuffing and pops into the oven on a tray.

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Hearth cooking is a simultaneously primitive and precise way to prepare food. Scott swings the iron crane over the fresh fire, hangs an iron kettle from it, and starts his cream of mushroom soup. Too hot? He shifts the pot one hook leftward, to the fire’s perimeter, where it settles into a simmer. He shovels forward another few scoops of the red oven coals and makes a pile at the front of the hearth. He sets a trivet over the coal pile and sets a pan of local mutton sausage atop it. The sausage sizzles, exactly as it should. Scott says this burner can be adjusted almost as precisely as a modern stove burner.

So you can see why Scott ended up in this crouching, red-eyed, arm-hairless position: he cannot resist an opportunity to hunker right down in the belly of history. (That said, when he happens to find his cooking gloves, he puts them on.)

Mushrooms simmer in chicken broth, the foundation of a rich and slighty smoky cream of mushroom soup.The pot can be moved from hook to hook on an iron crane, to get the right amount of heat from the fire.

But perhaps the most powerful argument for hearth cooking is the flavor. An iron kettle of golden Maine mussels opens the meal, the briny steam rolling across the room and out the door. Scott shapes an oversized burner from the last of the oven coals and puts a roasting pan of chopped root vegetables on it. The rear wall of the firebox tilts forward, throwing heat down onto the hearth and cooking the food that’s been placed there as well. In between baking days, this is where you would cook a pie or biscuits, perhaps in a Dutch oven or a tin baking box.

The faintest incense of smoke blesses the mussels. And next, the mushroom soup. Potatoes boil on the crane, and the aroma of that Bourbon Red is leaking out of the oven. Andrew uses a soda siphon (invented 1829) to fill cobalt glasses (Art Deco) with a sparkling, pink concoction (backyard quinces, 2016).

A beehive oven radiates the driest of dry heat, but you wouldn’t guess it from the turkey. The crisp, coppery skin gives way to meat that is rich, both in texture and in flavor, and that whispers with smoke. The guests bend over their antique plates in silence.

Scott raises a glass to the house, to the past, and to Andrew’s patience with all of it.

The oven will continue to shed heat for three more days.

Thanksgiving Sides to Cook on Your Hearth (or Stovetop)

By Scott Hanson

Cremini mushrooms are just mature versions of common white button mushrooms, but their flavor is deeper, earthier, and more complex. Cooking over an open fire will give this soup a slightly smoked flavor, which enhances the other flavors.

The quince bush at Whitten House was planted in 1966 when the building served as the Whitten Memorial Library. The bush was located next to our kitchen door until 2008; since I moved it across the yard to give it more space, it’s gone from producing maybe a dozen quinces a year to hundreds. We wait until after a hard frost to harvest them. Ripe ones are yellow. Any that are still green can be laid out in a single layer in a sunny indoor spot to finish ripening.

 

Cream of Mushroom Soup

6 tablespoons butter

5 medium garlic cloves, minced

1 large white or yellow onion, halved and sliced thin

1½–2 pounds fresh cremini mushrooms, sliced 1/8-inch thick (white button mushrooms can be substituted)

½ cup fresh parsley, chopped

2 quarts chicken broth

1 pint heavy cream

Melt butter in a large pot, ideally over an open fire. Add garlic and onion and sauté until onion is just softened. Add mushrooms and parsley, cover, and allow mushrooms to soften, stirring frequently. Add chicken broth and bring to a simmer, just shy of boiling. Stir in cream and simmer for 15–30 minutes to allow flavors to meld.


Cranberry Quince Sauce

1½ cups orange juice

1½ cups sugar

½ teaspoon ground clove

One 12-ounce bag cranberries
(about 3 cups)

1 cup quinces, cored and diced

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine juice, sugar, and clove. Heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves. Add cranberries and quinces, and cook until about two-thirds to three-quarters of the cranberries have popped and the quince is tender. Remove pan from heat and transfer sauce to bowl, where it will thicken as it cools.

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Hannah Holmes

Hannah Holmes, of Portland, is the author of four books, including Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality, and The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Outside, and National Geographic, and she is a science commentator for radio shows such as Maine Things Considered.

1 Comment

  • November 7, 2017

    Cheryl Miller

    What an incredibly vivid descriptive essay! I could smell and taste it! Well done and thank you. That was a treat

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