Churning the frothy orange layer at the top of the cauldron contents revealed not a witch's brew or magic potions but sausage, venison, beans and tomatoes, ingredients of the chili students later ate at Common Ground on the Hill's class "Having your Way with Fire" Thursday evening.

Common Ground, a two-week festival of classes held at McDaniel College that range from learning to build canoes to playing mariachi music, wraps up today.


The eight people in this week's "Having your Way with Fire" class learned how to tend a fire and prepare food, including the chili — which was topped with onions and sour cream — as well as homemade cornbread, coleslaw and peach cobbler. During the next class, "Common Ground on the Grill," which included of many of the same people, students cooked the food over the fire and then ate their fare all together.

During the week, students learned how to sharpen dull knives, build a fire from flint and steel, slice a 15-pound hunk of steak into strips, cut a full chicken, roast coffee beans and make a meal from start to finish.

Other than having a fire instead of an oven, outdoor cooking is done the same way as indoor cooking, said Shel Browder, one of the three instructors. The only other factor to take into account is the lack of a refrigerator. Ingredients that could spoil are kept in buckets of ice and must be added to the food right before it is ready to eat, Browder said.

Although the cauldron can sit on the fire because it is high enough above the flames, the Dutch oven, which is a round, deep pan that sits low to the ground on three little legs, must be kept beside the fire on a bed of coals, instructor Ted McNett explained.

"Most of the cooking you do is on coals, not the flames," McNett said, because the coals allow for more controlled, even heat.

After the wood burns into hot coals, they are scooped out of the flames with a shovel and placed around the perimeter of the fire. Once the lid is placed on the Dutch oven, more coals are added on top so that whatever is inside — from bread to pie to pork loin — cooks evenly.

Unlike a regular oven, cooking over an open fire requires vigilant attention because the elements, like the coals and wind, make outdoor cooking more variable.

"It's a whole-body experience. It involves all of your senses," said student Ida Warner, of Reisterstown. sight and smell come into play when it comes time to tell when something is burning.

Their work goes beyond just using their senses, though. There was no idleness. From slicing cabbage to fiddling with the fire to stirring cornbread, everybody was doing something to prepare the meal.

"But here you have everybody working together, which is really nice," Warner said.

Often people eat by themselves or simply pop dinner in the microwave — but not for this class, Warner said. Not only is it a social time, but also the work that the students do gives them a greater appreciation for what it takes to put together a meal.

Instructor Glen Handler surveyed her students working at the wooden table as they chopped vegetables for the coleslaw and mixed together cornbread batter. For the most part, everyone worked independently at their given tasks with occasional chides and clucks from Handler.

"Something about cooking it over the fire made it really delicious," student Jim MacDonald, of Glyndon, said of the ratatouille they made. Of everything they had made, from steak to biscuits, the ratatouille was his favorite.

It is a time of trial and error for students, McNett said. Some people have never cooked outside and others have never cooked at all.


Some people are afraid they are going to make a mistake, but the worst that could happen is a burnt meal, and really, even the blackened bottom of a loaf of bread can be sliced off, McNett said.

"We're teaching the process of it, so it's about getting [the students] away from being afraid to try it," McNett said.