Cooking in a hole in the ground, or pit cooking, is one of the oldest methods of preparing food used by almost every culture in almost every part of the world. Archaeologists seek out cooking pits, or cooking hearths, as key indicators of human settlement that best tell the story of life in a particular village.
In addition to roasting meat, vegetables and grains benefit from this method of trapping and controlling heat, smoke, and steam to enhance all the natural flavors and nutrition available.
The simplest pits are ovens where a fire is built and allowed to burn down into embers before food is placed inside. Bread baked this way takes high marks as a flavorful and nutritious accompaniment or foundation to the simplest meals.
Pits for steaming are constructed much the same way, except super-heated rocks and green vegetation are allowed to steam in a tightly covered pit.
Hawaiian luaus, traditional Southern and Texas barbeques, and clambakes invented by Native Americans along the Atlantic coast, are all examples of in the ground cooking.
The basic idea of pit cooking seems to permeate the customs of nomad populations who spend extended periods without benefit of cooking equipment or household help. At the end of the day, they insert a simple clay oven into a hole in the ground, build a fire, and they are not only ready to make tea, they are ready to cook the evening bread or roast a fowl or small animal with the misfortune to have crossed their path.
Kleftiko, traditional Greek pit-cooked lamb or goat, is said to follow a method developed by thieves in the mountains of Crete. Thieves would prepare the hot pit, then steal the animal and quickly prepare and bury it so that no telltale smoke was evident. When owners gave up the hunt because of lack of evidence, and the general hullabaloo settled down, the thieves enjoyed a meal of roast meat, succulent and cooked to perfection.
A New England Clambake or a whole roast pig is a major operation. However, these pit-baked beans can easily become a family backyard project:
The trick to the success of the beans, or any pit-cooked food, is that you make your pit large enough and deep enough so that you have plenty of hot stones, heated in a separate fire, to surround and cover your cast iron Dutch oven. Dutch ovens hold their heat well, but when you remove the beans the following morning, the oven should still be warm.
Fantastic pit-baked beans
1 ½ lbs dried beans
5 cups water
1 medium onion, chopped
t Tbsp salt
1 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp molasses
2 tsp dry mustard
1 ½ cups ketchup
½ lb bacon, cubed
* Pick over beans and soak in cool water overnight.
* Replace soaking water with fresh water and simmer until skins begin to break.
* Add remaining ingredients and cover with water. Make sure everything is hot.
* Wrap the Dutch oven with foil to be sure that no grit or ash gets in. Place in the pit, cover with coals and dirt, seal well and leave overnight.
By the way, since you have dug the hole and heated all the stones, you might want to go ahead and cook a chicken, well seasoned inside and out, in a second Dutch oven.