See colonial cooks in action Saturday at AJ Birthday Celebration

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By Greg Summers

When Scots-Irish settlers migrated to the Carolinas in the 18th century, they brought familiar names like Lancaster, Chester and York with them.

They also brought what they had learned from cooking in the open hearths of their homes in Ireland and the Pennsylvania settlements.

Those attending the annual Andrew Jackson Birthday Celebration on Saturday at Andrew Jackson State Park will get a brief glimpse of colonial cooking from demonstrations by the Cooking Guild of the Catawba Valley.

And the trick to the cooking that fed a young Andy Jackson hasn’t changed one bit, said William Rubel.

Rubel, author of “The Magic of Fire: Hearth Cooking; One Hundred Recipes for the Fireplace or Campfire,” said the cooking fire was the key to preparing colonial meals.

“It is difficult to compare hearth cooking with cooking on a modern kitchen stove because the open hearth is so much more than a place to cook. The firelight that casts its spell over the room – that entwines lovers – and infuses everything cooked on the hearth with a touch of magic,” Rubel said.

Those early American cooks had to infuse the dishes with a touch of originality, too.

Food was more seasonal because of a lack of refrigeration, with settlers depending on what they could get at that time of the year, said Rachel Baum. She is the family and children specialist for the Cultural and Heritage Museum of York County.

“This is a place where men and women cooperated with each other and incorporated their children to help with everything, from growing and gathering their own food to chopping wood, hauling water and getting the fire going early,” Baum said.

“You are cooking for a larger family – about seven people – and the meals aren’t going to be very elaborate affairs. Everything had to be prepared from scratch.”

According to “Scots-Irish in the South Carolina Upcountry” by Brandon Smith, the settlers assimilated food from America with their traditional food from Scotland and Ireland.

At first, Smith said they tried to live off what nature offered from Ireland and Scotland – Irish potatoes, some wild fruits, certain nuts and berries and several types of fish. But they quickly integrated their diet with crops like corn, cabbage, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins and new varieties of beans seasoned with smoked or salted pork.

“Some people may have had chocolate or coffee to drink, but these are things they bought, if they could find them,” Baum said.

Commerce was a key part of what cooks in the late 1700s could do, said Linda Gedney, a member of the Cooking Guild of the Catawba Valley.

“It really depends on where you were and if you had access to the spices and herbs that were imported,” Gedney said. “Your circumstances would definitely dictate what you could do.”

According to “The Backcountry Housewife: A Study of Eighteenth-Century Food,” by Kay Moss and Kathryn Hoffman, fruits and meats were not laced with preservatives.

However, it was heavily salted and generally richer and more fatty because of the lard it was cooked in.

Gedney said common cooking herbs included thyme, sage, chives, savory, sorrel, lettuce, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, pepper, bay leaves, onions, onions stuck with cloves, horseradish, vinegar, beer and wine.

Since very little sugar was available, ginger, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, molasses, lemon peel and rosewater were used to sweeten dishes.

Much of a cook’s day was spent surviving until the next day and preparing stores for the future.

Breakfast, which was eaten after several hours of work, included dishes like apple pie, fat meat and sauerkraut, cold turkey, Indian hoe (corn) cakes, fried hominy and buckwheat pancakes.

Lunch, which was served about mid-afternoon, was the main meal of the day for the settlers. Lunch dishes included meat and carrots, sausage and dried pumpkins, dumplings, pig’s feet and head and turnips, beans and butter, salad and wild pigeons.

Moss and Hoffman said supper would have been a lighter, early evening meal that sometimes included a one-pot dish like porridge or bread and milk, pumpkins, dumplings and salad.

“It wasn’t a very exciting diet,” Baum said.

Colonial-style Chicken Chowder


4 whole chicken breasts (split)

3 cups of water and 2 chicken bouillon cubes or 3 cups chicken broth

3 ribs celery

2 medium onions, chopped

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon thyme

1/2 cup rice

1 can cream-style corn

2 cups milk

Several dashes hot sauce


– Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

– Cook chicken, water, bouillon cubes (optional), celery and bay leaf for one hour (over open fire, if you have one).

– Strain broth and return to pot.

– Remove bone and skin from chicken and tear into bite-size pieces.

– Add chicken, salt, thyme, rice, hot sauce, cream-style corn and milk to pot.

– Cook for 30 minutes until rice is tender.

– If chowder is too thick, add more milk.

– From cooks.com