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Historian Mary Bohlen Brings Hearth Cooking Expertise to Hickory Ridge on Saturday

A few tips found in Mary Bohlen’s “Heritage Cooking Inspired by Rebecca Boone” will come to life during Bohlen’s live open-fire cooking demonstration at Hickory Ridge Museum in Boone on Saturday. 

By Sherrie Norris

For over 30 years, Mary Bohlen has shared her love for history  and her expertise as an open-fire cook  — using techniques from the colonial days with audiences far and wide.

She is no stranger to the Hickory Ridge Museum in Boone and will be returning there 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 13, to share her knowledge with visitor’s and homefolk, alike.

As a “heritage cook,” Bohlen, who resides in nearby Purlear,  recreates “receipts,” or what we know today as recipes, of Colonial America. She has made a name for herself at many of the south’s historic sites with her hearth and campfire cooking.

In early 2020, Bohlen published her book, “Mary Bohlen’s Heritage Cooking Inspired by Rebecca Boone,” which brings to life experiences she believes occurred in the 18th century kitchen of the wife of the famed pioneer, Daniel Boone.

And, where she will be doing her cooking on Saturday, at the Tatum Cabin, Bohlen believes will be as close to what Rebecca did as anywhere in the state and beyond. 

High Country Press spoke with Bohlen this week, learning more about the interest and passion of the woman who has influenced many with her knowledge, talent and skills.

She first became acquainted with the local museum over a decade ago, she said, while working with Michelle Ligon (recently deceased) on the NC Daniel Boone Heritage Trail.

“I did some cooking demonstrations in Boone several years ago when I was working with Michelle” she explained. “Then, I worked at the museum three years ago, and was director for one season when they were short staffed.”

The Tatum Cabin, Bohlen said, holds great appeal to her, for several reasons. “It is probably one of the most authentic places that I’ve cooked for in the back country. It is such a fine example of what the dwellings were in this area during that time period.”

A lot of the cabins that she’s cooked in have been reproductions, or built in later periods, she added. “But the Tatum Cabin is an excellent example of homes that were here on the frontier, and most likely, it is the type of dwelling that Rebecca and Daniel Boone lived in.”

Furthermore, she added, there is a “connection” between the Tatums and the Boones, “And it’s highly likely that Daniel Boone visited in that very cabin.”

It is a rare opportunity, Bohlen said, for her to be able to demonstrate living history cooking in any cabin, but especially that particular cabin in an accurate setting and representative of the homes of colonial days.

Bohlen shared with us about her experiences and why she does it.

“I’ve always like history, even when I was in elementary school. And later, when my husband was transferred to Atlanta for his job, I did some volunteer work at the Atlanta History Center. Then, I was a tour guide in their 1840 farmhouse. When they offered an open hearth cooking class one Saturday. I took it and I really loved it. When we moved back to NC, I started cooking at the log cabin at the Latta Plantation near where we lived at the time. It was the cabin that I helped build in a class I  had taken at Central Community College.”

From there, she said. “It just branched out to other things.”

She did a lot of research, on the subject the hard way — pre-internet, which made it much more difficult, but so worthwhile. She spent hours perusing through materials she discovered, studied carefully kitchen photos and utensil drawings from colonial periodicals and historic sites — reading everything she could. 

She started out with simple foods, cornbread and pumpkin pie, figured out just which good, seasoned firewood she needed for the best results, (oak, maple, or hickory produce the hottest coals, she said) and learned a lot “by trial and error,” before perfecting her method and becoming a valuable resource for others who shared her interest.

In addition to using the “right wood,” Bohlen said, choosing the right pot or pan is paramount. “You really have to have a good quality, heavy cast iron pan or a Dutch oven to hold the heat, and you have to have a good knife for preparing your food for cooking.” 

In her book, Bohlen offers her tried and true suggestions, “receipts” and said the book is much more than a cookbook — and that connecting food and history is very important to this area, especially.

Referring to her cooking as more of a passion than a simple hobby, Bohlen said she gets great satisfaction out of cooking at the hearth or campfire, knowing she is recreating history.

While the technique she has perfected might be difficult for some to understand, she encourages others to try it.

 “If you’ve ever gone camping and fixed your food outdoors, you’ve already done it. Or if your electricity has gone off in the middle of the winter, and you’ve fixed food in the fireplace, you’ve got a head start. If you have any interest at all, I suggest you try something simple, for starters. Find a receipt you would like to try and study it, including ingredients, measurements, and any accompanying directions. Think through the process— sometimes the directions may not be easily understood. Remember these receipts were penned down in earlier centuries. Some of the wording might not be easy to understand, so look it up on the computer. Have all the ingredients on hand and adapt the measurements if necessary before starting. Be patient, take your time and enjoy the process.” 

She continued, “You can cook soup, stew, boil meat or vegetables, or bake cornbread, rolls, a pie or whatever you want to do. Your pot is not directly on the fire, but that heat will allow you cook whatever food you choose. Shovel out hot coals onto the fireplace, put the pan on top of that so the pot is not directly on the fire. Put the lid on your pot and then cover the lid with hot coals so there is heat on top and bottom, very much like your oven in your modern kitchen. The only difference is, you don’t have a temperature gauge, timer or clock, so you have to pay attention.”

Bohlen stressed. “It’s not a real hard process, but you have to know what you are doing. You’ve heard the old saying about not talking to the cook. Take that to heart. If you get sidetracked, you can burn something very easily if you are not paying attention.”

And, she added, “No matter what status you were in life —a poor dirt farmer, a settler on the frontier, or if you lived in a fine palace, cooking was done in the same technique and process, over the fire with cast iron pots and pans.”

When she’s preparing to cook, Bohlen considers the time of the year, the season and  her location. “In other words, for this event coming up at Hickory Ridge, I’m not going to fix strawberry short cake, but I am going to fix a dried apple stack cake,  and I think about pumpkins, turnips, squash, sweet potatoes and similar things for this time of year.” 

When asked about her preferred audience, Bohlen is quick to say, “If one person shows up, I’m satisfied. But if 50 show up, I’m happy too.

Cooking on a fireplace brings people together who want to be there. It’s a common denominator. I’ve met all kinds of people from various backgrounds, even other countries. There’s something about cooking food over a hot fireplace that draws people. If they’re interested in it, they’ll hang around and ask questions. I’m doing it because I want to do and love to do it. It’s a joy for me if it’s just me and the fireplace.”

It is Bohlen’s hope that her techniques of cooking – and the information found within her book — will draw more people to local history and to a deeper understanding of the life of pioneering women, like Rebecca Boone. She might have been in the background of her husband’s fame, but was a woman of strength who kept the home fires burning, literally, while Daniel was out exploring for months at a time, Bohlen concurs.

Mary Bohlen’s Heritage Cooking Inspired by Rebecca Boone (Food and the American South) Paperback – March 2, 2020

Is available through Amazon and other book outlets, and at the museum in Boone on Saturday.

In it, she shares much she has learned about early American history, as well as her own accounts of cooking at historic sites; it includes more than 90 authentic colonial recipes, and instructions for today’s cook to reproduce the food ways early Americans would recognize. 

“The book cook contains “receipts”  known as recipes as we call them today, actually dishes and foods I’ve prepared on the hearth or on the campfire.”

“Mary Bohlen has done a lot for Hickory Ridge Museum through the years,” said longtime museum member and volunteer, Jane Campbell. “Mary’s hearth cooking demonstration in Tatum Cabin on Saturday will be the last before the museum closes for the season and will be a great inspiration for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. We would love for her to lead a hearth cooking workshop here in the spring, so please let us know if you are interested.”

Campbell encourages homefolk and visitors alike to come out to Hickory Ridge History Museum and meet Bohlen on Saturday.  Centered around the Colonial era in Boone, the museum consists of six historic log cabins, complete with authentic furnishings and artifacts, and representative of life in the area during the 18th century. Period-dressed historians guide guests on a tour back in time. Open April through mid-November, hours vary so check the website. There is a small fee to help maintain and renovate these historic structures. Hickory Ridge is adjacent to the outdoor drama, Horn in the West. The museum complements the historic drama, which depicts settlers during the War for Independence who escape to the Blue Ridge Mountains to preserve their freedom.

The museum is a non-profit operation run by the Southern Appalachian Historical Association, located at 591 Horn in the West Drive, just off US 321 in the heart of Boone.

For more information, call (828) 264-2120 or visit 

www. horninthewest.com.