Before modern kitchens, rural families had separate cooking facilities for processing and preserving home-grown foods, as well as other household chores. The house did not contain a kitchen “room” as we know it, but only a hearth and sometimes a bake oven. The kitchen—later known as a summer kitchen—was located in a detached rectangular building. The process of preparing, canning, and preserving produce created a great deal of heat, and required dedicated space for the efficient production of canned goods, pickling, candle and soap making, laundry washing, sausage grinding, salting and smoking meats, and other household needs. A separate outside building not only kept a house cooler in the summer, but lessened the chance of potential house fires.
The designation “summer kitchen” and its typical architecture seem to be derived largely from the Pennsylvania German culture. Traditionally the summer kitchen was a one or two-story building made from brick, stone, logs or frame. Our Museum summer kitchen was constructed in the early 19th century of wood-frame German siding. The outbuilding is gabled, and contains three windows for lighting, an open hearth with a wood lintel, and a beehive oven that extends into a smokehouse for curing meats. A large saw blade can be drawn out of the exhaust to allow smoke to permeate the room, and wrought iron hooks are still attached to the smoky wood-paneled walls where once hams and sausages hung.
Iron pots hung from a lug pole over the fire for cooking, and Dutch ovens were placed directly on the coals with additional coals to cover the concave lid. Temperature control was achieved by raising or lowering the pots on a chain, or adding hot coals to the Dutch oven lid. Three-legged iron pots could also be placed directly on the hearth floor.
The Museum’s beehive oven is larger than most and may have been used for baking by several farms. Wood used for fuel in the oven must be dried and chosen carefully for heat potential. Fruitwoods are preferable, but oak is good for providing medium heat and is slow burning. It takes more than three hours to preheat the oven! When the right temperature is achieved, foods that require high-temperature cooking are placed in first, followed by foods requiring longer times and lower temperatures. Temperature can be estimated by placing one’s hand in the oven: if you can only hold your hand in five seconds, you have a hot, quick oven; ten seconds would be a medium oven.
The skills needed to cook on a hearth are nearly lost, but if you have ever tasted a beehive oven-baked ginger cookie, or roasted meat over a fire, you will not soon forget the flavor. The demise of the cooking hearth and beehive oven was ushered in by cast iron stoves, then electric ovens. Because it was so labor intensive and grimy, summer kitchens ceased to be in use after the Great Depression.
Our Museum is fortunate that in 1995 Professor Dick Pencek and his American Studies students undertook the restoration of the summer kitchen. On special occasions throughout the year, Debra and Charles Nydegger, who for 20 years have been skilled beehive oven bakers, demonstrate hearth cooking and baking in the Museum’s Summer Kitchen. Please plan on visiting us for Boalsburg’s Hometown Christmas! Enjoy a warm, spicy cookie in our lovely summer kitchen redolent with wood smoke and holiday greens. Maybe you, too, will want to learn the art of cooking with the magic of fire!