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By Alice Ross

Aren’t We Lucky To Be Living Now!

Imagine living in a time when all our electronic kitchen aids were beyond the range of imagination, when gas and electric heat were still far off in the future, when cooking was done in the fireplace, usually at back-breaking ground level. Imagine an earlier time when the cooking fire was not yet contained in a fireplace, when it sat smack dab in the middle of an all purpose open room, right on the dirt floor, the smoke making its way gradually through a thatch roof or a smoke hole at the roof peak. Perhaps you had a small tripod affair from which to hang a pot; or perhaps you propped your all-purpose kettle (often made of ceramics, but perhaps iron, if you were lucky) on a tripod of rocks or an iron cooking trivet. There were few alternatives—sometimes a small makeshift oven was created by inverting a bowl over a heated stone, and burying it under a pile of smoldering coals. If this was the way everyone lived and cooked, there was probably very little sense of deprivation, or of the comforts and culinary possibilities the future had in store.

But now visualize the advent of the fireplace jams and chimneys as we know them, the relatively smokeless room and safety from flying sparks. With the introduction of chimneys in ordinary homes came the possibility of installing trammels—those chain, geared or post-and-hole arrangements for not only suspending but also raising and lowering the pots hanging from them—and thus an additional means to controlling cooking temperatures. This extended the range of cookery in more humble households, and enabled some of the simpler preparations of wealthier kitchens to find their way down the socio-economic scale. Imagine installing such improvements in your own home and marveling that modern improvements had reached their limit. Cooking pots could now be either suspended over fires on trammels, and if you now had more than one of these new gadgets, you might also have more than one cooking pot over the fire, along with those you propped on their own legs or on trivets on the hearth. The complexity of the menu was advancing. Today what seems to have been incredibly hard physical work, awkward, uncertain, and perhaps dangerous was far from it to our ancestors. "What more can they do?" they were probably saying, "Aren’t we lucky to be living now!"

And then, after this had become the standard, along came another change—the early eighteenth-century swinging crane. Just think of this marvelous equipment! It allowed the cook to move pots in and out of the fire without lifting them, to stir, add to or check the dish without straining one’s back or risking hot spills, and offered a more comfortable away-from-the-heat environment in which to work. Now the pot adjustments regulating cooking temperatures could be both up and down as well as in and out. Moreover, no longer limited to the number of trammels, there was an increased amount of hanging space and thereby increased possibilities for the number of pots and the complexity of the meals. Again: "what more can they do? Aren’t we lucky to be living now!. 

It is, indeed, difficult to imagine, but it is the very essence of 

 Change did not begin in the eighteenth century, nor with the cook stove. The colonial American hearth and its technology were not the beginning of cookery technology but were, instead, lurching along in a continuum in which new developments stood on the shoulders of earlier utensils, a movement away from the past and toward the unimagined something else. And doubtless, with each new development, but without any sense at all of what the future was to bring, people marveled at their exceptional fortune.

Progress was not entirely a smooth line. At certain moments increased demand sparked invention, and in a circular fashion, the availability of new technologies fed demand. Thus it would seem that the early eighteenth-century must have been a time of marvelous improvements. Colonization and industrial development brought increasing need for and development of cast iron and tin, which found their way increasingly into kitchens. These portable ovens took their inspiration from upper and lower ends of the economic spectrum. The hanging bake kettles of northern European peasants inspired the American Dutch oven, a portable oven which could economically use less fuel to bake breads, puddings, pies, stews. And the elaborate and expensive mechanical spit jacks of more privileged homes influenced the development of tin reflecting ovens, in which roasts of all kinds were simply and superbly prepared. Fashion in kitchen furnishings was converging on the middle, following the new colonial American directions leading to the age of the common man. As the limits of materialism grew, so did the mood of this century, its spirit of inventiveness and optimism helping to shape the faith that it was within the hands of humankind to solve all problems. 

 The convenience and the sense of wonder at this progress must have been delightful: again: "Aren’t we lucky to be living now!"

It would be an oversight not to discuss the cook stove and all its attendant changes—new fuels, new pot designs, new menu possibilities and expansions. Of all the many consequent nineteenth-century advances, just think of the printed recipe and standardized measurements system that brought us to a then-unforeseen twentieth-century moment at which we could cook experimentally (for ethnicity, health, fashion, or haute cuisine) nightly at home.

This is not to say that all change was always thought to be for the best. The cook stove, for example, was blamed for the demise of the American fireside and the decline of the family. No longer did everyone sit together around the hearth in the evening, cozily telling stories and discussing the day at the fireside. And the food was not always as good—roasted meats, for example, suffered in the iron monster.

Now we feel, as so many must have before, that we have come to the end of the line, the end of change. What more can we imagine, beyond microwave ovens. And what about those stove-tops that work without apparent heat but which use magnetic power to create heat in the pot itself. Just as surely as our ancestors reveled in a swinging crane without any anticipation of cook stoves, we know that our children will regard our technology as hopelessly old fashioned, will revel in the changes that come to characterize their time, and will suffer from ignorance of their own future.

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Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is aross@binome.com. Her web site is www.li.net/~aross
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