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Randall's Ordinary: a not-so-ordinary inn.

This hosterly and restaurant with the unpretentious name of Randall's Ordinary--ordinary is the Pilgrim-era word for inn--is a restored 1685 plank-frame Connecticut farmhouse with beam ceilings, lace-canopied four-poster and trundle beds, a loud parrot, footed "spider" skillets and vertical ovens, and period costumes. Surrounded by woods and oxen-dotted pastures, it is the only place in the world where people can feast daily on authentic open-hearth cuisine from the American Revolutionary War period. According to the owners, the meals served at Randall's are prepared from original recipes of Colonial times--and indeed, the inn takes its guests centuries away from McDonald's and the frozen world of TV dinners.

Located on 27 bucolic acres in North Stonington, Connecticut, Randall's Ordinary is the fifth antique house that innkeepers Bill and Cindy Clark have restored. Neither Clark has a restaurant or hotel-management background. Both graduates of the University of Connecticut, Cindy was a manager at an insurance company and Bill worked in sales and purchasing for a construction firm. They opened Randall's Ordinary in 1987.

"We just want to share with others the things that have given us and our friends a lot of pleasure," Cindy says. This goal includes reviving the ancient ritual of hearth cookery, which all but vanished when many homeowners bricked up their fireplaces to conserve energy.

The Clarks' interest in this subject began about 20 years ago, when they began buying antique furniture and cookware because they were less expensive than new. "We ended up spending our grocery money on antiques," Cindy, 43, quips. But the Colonial cookbooks they acquired are difficult for modern cooks to follow because they list only the ingredients, not measurements.

"We mostly had to learn to cook over the open hearth through trial and error," Bill, 46, explains. Adds Cindy: "The fireplaces really fascinated us; the idea of the fireplace being the focus of everyday family life."

Hardest to learn, they report, was the use of arcane cooking utensils, such as iron kettles, Dutch ovens, a circa-1810 vertical oven with a mechanical spit for rotating meats, whirling broilers (kind of a Colonial hibachi), cranes with "S" hooks for holding kettles over the fire, spits and skewers, and fireplace tools. "Each piece has a personality. Each kettle reacts differently to the heat," Bill explains.

Building and maintaining fires--knowing which woods to use and how hot the fires and coals are--is always problematic. "You want to have coals there when you're ready for them, and they don't just happen," Bill says. Adds Cindy: "You coax the fire a lot with kindling, then maintain it with good-sized logs. You swear under your breath a lot!"

Barbarellen Sottile, a chef and a waitress, explains, "You know the temperament of the fire and the idiosyncrasies of the three large fireplaces. Each has its own personality, depending on the shape of the chimney and where it is on the roof. The humidity affects the draft and makes the air heavy, and therefore the fire is slow because the wood has a higher water content. Different woods have different heat intensities. Each imparts its own special seasoning."

The inn burns about four cords a month of seasoned hardwoods; most wood used is from the property. Oak, hickory, and ash create the longest-lasting embers, but, says Bill, "Apple gives the food a wonderful flavor. It's the only wood I'll go off my property to cut. The appeal of open-hearth cooking is the aroma of the wood, which gives the food its special taste. People say fireplace cooking is a lot of work, but we've found it's not so much physical as mental work. The fire must be timed right so the food will cook properly. That comes with experience. Since the food requires constant attention, it is not a good idea to have more than two or three things cooking at the same time."

The inn serves a red meat, poultry, and seafood dish every night. Nantucket scallops, spider cornbread (from a 1796 recipe, cooked in the footed skillet that prompted its name), and a wheat bread baked in a beehive oven also appear every night at the 7 o'clock seating.

First to go on the fire is the longest-roasting meat--venison, goose, or capon, which take two-and-a-half hours to cook. Later, the additional roasts go on the other two fireplaces. Next come the cornbread and soup, which each take one hour. Dessert is one of three choices.

The cooks bake in a Dutch oven, grill in a whirling broiler, roast in a reflector oven, boil in kettles, and saute in skillets. Most utensils are iron, except the copper pots they cook fruit sauces in--the Clarks learned early on that cooking fruit sauces in iron pots will produce a chemical reaction that stains teeth black! Surprisingly, these three-course, open-hearth meals take about the same amount of time as oven cooking.

The Clarks encourage their nightly 75 guests to walk around, observe the cooking choreography, and ask questions about Randall's Ordinary and its recipes. In period costumes, the Clarks greet their guests by the seasonal blackboard menu that lists the evening's three to six entrees. Bill wears knee breeches, a long-sleeved work shirt, a vest, long stockings, and buckled shoes. Cindy dresses in a simple chemise, apron, and a floor-length skirt over a drawstring petticoat. ("You could pull the string and drop out of the petticoat so you wouldn't be burned. In Colonial times, fire was the second-leading cause of death," Cindy explains.)

The Clarks "do the rounds" every night. They socialize before the meal over cheese and crackers, popcorn, and Colonial drinks such as bang, a mixture of cider, ale, and whiskey; after the meal is served, they go from table to table encouraging guests to ask questions.

Only two of Randall's Ordinary's regulars find fault with the fare--the owners' two teenage children. Wendy is soon off to Smith College for her freshman year; and 15-year-old Christopher enjoys swapping the exquisite repasts at Randall's for mundane meals with his friends. "The kids used to put leftover grilled pheasant on Wonder Bread and take it to school to trade for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They get tired of eating this kind of food every night," Cindy laughs.

But for the diners who don't live there, Randall's Ordinary is a treat. Says Mary Kaufman, who visits from her Weston, Connecticut, home every Christmas: "A spiritual presence exists here, and a Colonial feel."

That "Colonial feel" is authentic--the inn was home to the Randall family for more than 200 years beginning in 1685. In the 19th century, the inn, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was a stop along the Underground Railroad. Near the fireplace in the Hearth Room is a trapdoor that leads to a 12-foot-deep root cellar. Its false floor conceals another chamber beneath, where slaves traveling the Underground Railroad hid at night. Here Bill found an old stone that slaves once used as a calendar.

No two of the inn's 12 guest rooms are alike. Three of the rooms above the dining room have a fireplace; the staff members light the fires every night. Across the wooded yard in the beamed 1819 barn, disassembled and moved from New York State, are nine rooms with telephones, TV sets, and whirlpool baths. A light and airy structure, the barn boasts cathedral ceilings and several lofts with views of woods, pastures, and walking trails.

For more information, write Randall's Ordinary, Route 2, P.O. Box 243, North Stonington, CT 06359 or call (203) 599-4540. The inn is on Route 2, one-third of a mile north of exit 92, off Interstate 95. Rates are $85 to $140 per night, double occupancy, with continental breakfast. Dinner is $30 per person.
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Title Annotation:a Connecticut hostelry and restaurant
Author:Crowley, Carolyn Hughes
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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