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Posted on Sat, Jan. 11, 2003

Into the fire
Mercy Ingraham champions the old-fashioned rewards of hearth cooking.

 

Ingraham in front of the hearth in her circa-1750 Hulmeville home.

No one cooks like Mercy Ingraham anymore, including - more's the pity - on most workaday evenings, Mercy herself.

She is a hearth cook, the culinary equivalent of one of those Revolutionary War reenactors, and it is her conviction that the invention of the stove, while it's sure saved wood, has not been without its drawbacks.

You lose touch with the food, she says. You do not see the color or feel the give. You do not let the scent signal the progress of the cooking; you cannot hear when an onion is done - its interior hissing and crackling, telling you to fish it, already, from the fire.

Thermostats and clocks do the job now, not noses or ears or eyes. Something else is lost, too - a social focal point. TV serves that function now, a light in a bottle, distant, unpoke-able, unwarm, doing all the talking.

On Thanksgiving, she told me, she'd cooked an 11-pound turkey and all the fixings in her fireplace, a serious 41/2-foot-tall stone maw, circa 1750. She regaled me later with a tale of a balky, extremely slow-cooking goose at a historical-site demo she'd conducted.

So, of course, I was happy to accept her invitation to a fire-cooked meal at her home at the edge of Neshaminy Creek in what was, once upon a time, Hulmeville's and Bucks County's first bank.

Ostensibly, the dinner was to test her proposition that fire-roasted "string chicken" was superior to an oven-roasted bird (though in her vocabulary, ovens don't roast, a style of cookery committed only in the uncontained world of flame and ember; they perform a less magical function called baking).

This notion is shared by one of her heroes, William Rubel, whose enchanting, step-by-step, illustrated field guide, The Magic of Fire (Ten Speed Press, $40) asserts that "on the open hearth, everything can be made to taste better: stronger, richer, deeper, more striking."

Everything?

When my wife and I arrive, Ingraham's oak logs have whittled slowly to orange coals. Ash-dusted eggplants are toasting by the open fire, baggy as old slippers.

It is true that after we scoop them out, and I mash their flesh with garlic and salt, the resulting dip is striking indeed - fruity and intensely eggplant-y. Ingraham, a psychiatric nurse by training, has tossed disks of flour-water-salt dough directly - yes, directly - onto the bed of coals and ash, preparing blistered ash cakes reminiscent of India 's tandoor-baked bread. We dig them like paddles into the garlicky eggplant.

A winter bean soup, redolent of a neighbor's pole limas and old rinds of Parmesan, simmers in a cast-iron pot. Raw onions, beets and a red pepper have been rolled directly - yes, directly - into the glowing coals, growing charry shells that when peeled off reveal robustly flavored (and surprisingly moist) innards.

The oven-baked chicken is done first, coming out of the oven buttery yellow in an hour and 20 minutes.

The fire-roasted string chicken, so named because it dangles from a loop of cotton string and twirls lazily beside low flames, takes a good half hour longer.

No question, the oven chicken is moist and perfectly good. But the fire bird is pleasingly bronzed, its meat more tightly textured and densely - or perhaps, yes, more richly - flavored.

No one mentions it, but it occurs to me later that not for one moment did we gather around the oven, soaking up its warmth, sipping our wine, and watching the bird turn brown. l