Hearth to Hearth: There’s History In Your Frying Pan

Hearth to Hearth: There’s History In Your Frying Pan - The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles - January 2001

There is a certain amount of confusion regarding the name for that three-legged, long-handled frying pan we call a “spider.” Collectors of kitchenware tell us that its shape evokes the arachnid-high stilty legs holding up a round black body. With a bit of a stretch, the long handle appendage is also somehow lifelike. The opening at the shaped tip of the handle, usually a hook or a rattail, suggests an eye. The organic nature of the image is carried into its name, as was typical of early technology terminology. It’s like the common use of the word “dogs,” (originally work animals,) and the terms “firedogs” (andirons,) or “spit dogs” (mechanical spit turners.)

Surprisingly, the term spider is American in origin, according to both sides of the Atlantic: The Dictionary of Americanisms (1951) and The Oxford Dictionary agree. The earliest reference offered is an American advertisement: “The Pa. Packet (1790) announced that “William Robinson, Junr…Hath for Sale…bake pans, spiders, skillets.” Note the distinction between spiders and skillets (long-handled, legged stew pots.) By applying a certain logic to Robinson’s advertisement, the spider, being neither a bake pan nor a stew pan, is by default a frying pan. And so it seems to have been, according to clues in the pots themselves and in the recipes.

One can speculate that they evolved from the frying pans one finds in early paintings, where high-legged frying pans are scarce. They clearly show the elements of earlier Dutch cast-iron frying pans (no legs) used for pancakes, for example, or seventeenth-century ceramic, three-legged rounded pipkins. Perhaps these inspired what would become the eighteenth-century American forged, stamped, or spun sheet iron spiders with welded legs and a strap handle.

By mid-nineteenth century, cast-iron frying pans, flat bottomed, slant sided, and still three-legged, assumed the earlier name and were also called spiders. The new cookstove had influenced new pot designs. Legs were eliminated and rounded bottoms were flattened. This was a death knell for the lovely bowl-shaped spiders; deep frying and simple warming were now the province of deep-stamped iron fryers and saucepans. In their pared-down form, spiders continued to function as shallow frying pans but under a variety of old names-pans, frying pans, and skillets. And although they were now legless, they sometimes kept their old name-spiders.

The same period produced deep flat-bottomed, stamped-iron spiders on high strap legs. I have two of these in my own collection, identical but for size (these were not accidentals, and find they are superb deep fryers. Their construction is less careful than the common eighteenth century versions; there is some possibility that they are Long Island pieces. I have not seen them in trade catalogs or books on iron, and apart from the layers of grease they came with, I have no documentary evidence of their intended use. I would love to hear from anyone who does.

In any case, spiders—the name and the pan—continued to be a strong part of kitchen culture. They must have been in general use and widely known, as various American writers of fiction and poetry used spiders to make a literary point. John Galt described a “a judicious selection of spiders and frying-pans.” Poet John Greenleaf Whittier knew his readers would understand his images in the line “Like fishes dreaming of the sea and waking in the spider.” In her novel We Girls (1870) : Mrs. Adeline D. T. Whitney invoked a kind of domestic life with the line, “It is slopping and burning and putting away with a rinse that makes kettles and spiders untouchable.”

Another view of spider history comes from early recipes. English fried foods required “frying pans” (not the American “spiders.”) Martha Bradley’s extensive The Experienced Housewife (London, 1756) had several sections entitled “Of Frying.” These dishes invariably required a “frying-pan,” as distinguished from other kinds of pots such as the “stewpans” in which she simmered ragoos. Hannah Glasse’s recipes (1747) likewise specified “frying-pans” and “pans” for such fried dishes as fish, “Dough Nuts” or “Fritters.” Frying pans, widely known, were manufactured in varying depths to suit the cook’s need of lard or butter. These recipes did not mention spiders.

A search of early American printed cookbooks also turned up very few frying pans of that name. Considering its familiarity today, the term “spider” seems to have been surprisingly unused. Undoubtedly frying pans abounded, as people continued to fry, but they were known by other names. Regionality may be the key to this. American Cookery (Connecticut, New York, 1796), The Virginia Housewife (1824), The Kentucky Housewife (1839), and The Carolina Housewife (1847) all chose the terms “pan” or “frying pan.” The “best sort of frying pan” was described by Mrs. Lee (Boston, 1832) as follows: “A frying-pan should be about four inches deep, with a perfectly flat and thick bottom, twelve inches long and nine broad, with perpendicular sides, and must be half filled with fat…” Hers seems to be an oval, apparently cast iron, a rare shape today. Perhaps she assumed (from the date and the prevalence of fireside cooking at that time) that you would know that there were legs.

You have to go to the early nineteenth century Boston and New England cookbooks to find spiders. The first American mention of spiders was in a fritter recipe in Lydia Maria Child’s Frugal Housewife (Boston, 1833): She wrote, “Flat-jacks, or fritters, do not differ from pancakes, only in being mixed softer…They are not to be boiled in fat, like pancakes; the spider [emphasis mine] or griddle should be well greased, and the cakes poured on as large as you want them, when it is quite hot; when it gets brown on one side, to be turned over upon the other…” These are clearly the kind of pancakes we make today, and the technique is a kind of pan baking. Child’s spider must have been a flat-bottomed variety of cast iron, probably with legs, as her era was still largely hearth oriented. In 1845, Mrs. E. A. Howland (Montpelier, VT) also suggested that griddle cakes or flat jacks (pancakes) use the same pans: “Bake or fry them on a griddle, or in a spider, like buckwheat cakes.” Mrs. Howland’s spider is without a doubt a heavy frying pan, the thick iron working as a griddle does.”

By the end of the century spiders—the restyled stove top kind—were still in use with their old name. Occasionally they were still used for deep frying. For example, an 1880’s Texas cookbook offered a recipe for “Crullers” that required “a great deal of lard in the spider…” but gave no clues about its design.

“Spider Cornbreads” also turned up in recipe collections. They are usually baked in a preheated heavy cast-iron frying pan, sometimes in the oven and sometimes on the stove top. Miss Parloa’s Young Housekeeper (Boston, 1894) offered a recipe for “Spider Corn Bread,” made with a mixture of sweet and sour milk. Despite the title, she directs: “Have a short-handled, cast-iron frying pan heating on the top of the stove…” and right there on the page, embedded in the text, is an illustration of a just such a pan labeled “Frying-Pan.” A few years later, Mrs. Lincoln, (BOSTON, 1883, 1897 ed.): quoted the recipe, calling it “Spider Corn Cake (Sour Milk).” She adapted t h e directions to suit the title: “Melt the butter in a hot spider (emphasis mine), or shallow round pan…”

Why call it “Spider Corn Bread” and then bake it in a “frying pan?” The readers knew the names are synonymous. And they knew that the use of sour milk in both recipes harkened back to earlier days and the first days of pearlash, the chemical leavening that required the sour (acid) liquid to do its leavening work. The title calls up this bit of history, and tells us that the recipe is not only old, but also honored.

To this day the words “Spider Cornbread” proclaim a celebrated American tradition based on a special pan. In 1971, Marie Nightingale’s Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens (near New England) included a sour milk cornbread recipe called “Spider Cornbread,” as did the Montclair, New Jersey Historical Society version of an early family manuscript cookbook. An honorary title.

Today cooks make spider or skillet cornbread in a heavy frying pan and sometimes remember the days when cornbread was bread, not cake. During the twentieth century this tradition was carried throughout the nation by a new mobile society, and is to be found everywhere. “Spider Cornbreads” in such recipe collections are invariably baked in heavy, preheated cast-iron frying pans, sometimes in the oven and sometimes on the stove top. The Browns’ exhaustive survey of American regional cuisine included it as a Tennessee specialty (American Cooks, 1940.)

You may wish to use an old high-legged spider at the hearth or a newer cast-iron frying pan at the stove; either way there is a fine taste of history in your pan.

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