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Hearth to Hearth: Braziers and Chafing Dishes

Hearth to Hearth: Braziers and Chafing Dishes – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – March 2002

Chafing dishes are synonymous with luxury. The extravagant banquets of ancient Greece and Rome depended on them for drama at the table; the ruins of Pompeii show the evidence of their status. Some of their aura rose from their association with the noble host, himself preparing a delicacy for the entertainment and delectation of his honored guests, as he proved, at the same time, his cultural sophistication and wealth. With the passage of centuries, very little changed. Copper, silver, bronze, and iron, valuable metals in their early development, continued in use even as they became more common, because they worked so well. And so to this day, the erudite mistress of the dining table may tote out her best fondue service (an adapted chafing dish, after all) and impress her guests with both her savvy and her expensive, fine imported chocolate.

Chafing dishes, often connected to elegant entertaining, have also remained in the batteries de cuisine because they worked so well. During all those centuries of cooking near raging fire, it was a major challenge to maintain a low gentle heat. Certainly there was no knob with which to turn down the fire, and even small piles of coals on the hearth required constant bending and replenishing. When the lady of the well-appointed kitchen turned her hand to the fancy dishes that made her reputation, it is likely that she moved away from the raging flames to a nearby brazier. These more easily controlled “stoves” were often self-contained cooking units, each with its own chamber for coals, and over which a small pan rested on gratings or prongs. The heat it produced was clearly mild, and its place on the kitchen table, or sometimes at waist height on its own stand, was far more comfortable-work height. Some appear to have been made just to hold the coals themselves, while others included the suspended pan.

Recipes that called for braziers, chafing dishes, or even “a dish of coles” [sic] were often required in early cooking manuscripts, whether in the private recipe collections or in household libraries of the privileged. The foods themselves could have been sweet or savory: For example, a seventeenth and eighteenth century Welsh Rabbit used one to melt the cheese mixture; the slow gentle heat also benefited stews and fricassee’s. In a dish called “French Pottage,” sippets (toast triangles) were softened in warmed wine just before the final presentation. And when candying violets or burrage blossoms they were indispensable. Thus is little wonder that chafing dishes were listed as the more valuable cookery possessions in wills or estate inventories (where they were assessed for inheritance taxes after the death of the head of household) In 1642 Henry Roffe, Ipswich, Massachusetts, directed that “If any of my children dye then that porcon shalbe equally divided betweene my wife & the rest of my children I doe give unto my wife one great brasse pott and one great brasse pann, and a great brasse posnett and a chafing dish and five pewter platters.” And when he subsequently died, his inventory listed the chafing dish and a posnet (saucepan) together as worth 5 shillings.

Chafing dishes and braziers were made of a thin metal, often brass or copper, spun or pressed or hammered; the pots suspended over them were similarly constructed for lightweight and so as to permit sensitive heat transmission. The “dish of coles,” closely related, was more often used as a drying implement. A few coals, or embers, were held under the upper chamber, which was more enclosed, boxy, and suited to slow dehydration of dried fruits or candied flowers…“to candy flowers in theyr naturall culler, “set them A drying in a sive, set in an oven,” or when candying violets, “then put in a box & keep them to dry in a stove.” Their integral place in early American cookery is revealed by Amelia Simmons (1796) who used one to preserve strawberries. As may be evident, these chafing dishes, braziers, and dishes of coals were always used in the kitchen, were considered to be pots, and were not appropriate at the dining table.Their high position was derived from the fact that the ingredients were costly (especially the sugar, perhaps imported wines), that they required exceptional skill that one might expect in an ordinary farm family or from a hired kitchen girl, and that they frequently prepared and preserved dishes that could not easily be found or eaten out of season.

However, the growth of cities changed this, and by the end of the nineteenth century, chafing dishes took on a new cast. The cook stove had made it possible to work at waist height over gentle heat by simply sliding the pot to the far end of the stovetop, away from the firebox area underneath. But now the glowing coals of earlier chafing dishes were replaced by small alcohol burners under the pan, sometimes wickless, but sometimes with wicks that could be adjusted to vary the temperature. Some rigs offered the use of a pan of water underneath the cooking compartment, a la bain marie; these could not only cook very gently but also kept food warm on a sideboard or buffet.

Late nineteenth-century urban middle class women now had more time and interest in delicacies, and the price of sugar had dropped considerably. With more leisure they entertained more, often with luncheons, teas, and suppers. No longer an exotic adjunct of the hearth, the chafing dish reverted to the ancient role of charming one’s guests by displaying expertise and offering flattering, personalized efforts.

A new genre of cookbooks devoted to the chafing dish was now published, some promotional in nature and distributed by the manufacturers of elaborate silver sets or their copies in copper, nickel, and brass. Others were written by trendy cookbook authors on the cutting edge of table fashion. Together they guided newcomers to the urban middle class, instructing them on how to use the new equipment in the light and dainty cuisine just then finding favor in new social rituals. And thus were developed such new recipes as cherries jubilee, deviled eggs, creamed salmon or chicken, or kidneys in mushrooms and wine.

In the midst of meat-and-potatoes home cooking now rose a group of cookbooks that clearly connected chafing dish specialties, other dainty innovations of the time (salads, finger sandwiches, sweets and relishes), and new meal patterns (teas, luncheons, suppers). Just look at the titles and their dates, keeping in mind that no such cooking had previously existed.

  • 1890; [anonymous] On the Chafing Dish, A Word for Sunday Night Teas offered a selection of savory dishes that could be put together easily and served graciously at the table. The author noted that “The few receipts for the chafing Dish I have found successful in making the informal Sunday night tea a meal much to be desired. All of them are dishes simply and easily prepared by the housekeeper herself- or himself.” Its “Epilogue”added salad choices.
  • 1900; [ca.]. Christine Terhune Herrick, The Chafing Dish Supper.
  • 1902; Fannie Merritt Farmer, Chafing Dish Possibilities. Included some history of the utensil, and non-chafing dish preparations such as fashionable sweets, relishes, and candies.
  • 1905; Frank Scholesser, The Cult of the Chafing Dish.
  • 1906; Chef Louis Muckensturm, Louis’ Salads & Chafing Dishes.
  • 1912; Alice L James, The Chafing Dish, Together With Directions For The Preparation of Sandwiches.
  • 1912; Mrs. S. T. Rorer, How To Use a Chafing Dish.
  • 1912; Gesine Lemcke, Chafing Dish Recipes: included salads, canapes, sweet desserts and chafing dish luncheon menus.
  • 1913; A. C. Hoff, The Chafing Dish Specialties.

A similar series of works had been targeted specially at bachelors, the bon vivants who might be found “In Clubs, Yachting Circles, Army and Navy, and The Dreams of Fair Women—Heaven Bless Ém ” (Deshler Welch, The Bachelor and The Chafing Dish, 1896).

And so on.

Needless to say, such an audience sought the equipment necessary to make the right impression. In 1892, the Jewett Chafing Dish promotions portrayed a decorative utensil available in silver plate, nickel plate, or polished copper. It burned alcohol, and boasted that it had no “wick to get out of order.” Four years later, the Gorham Manufacturing Company used the standard cookbook format, filled with illustrations, as a catalog of enticing designs.

In 1906, Sternau’s small promotional booklet of chafing dish recipes described a more complicated set of equipment. It declared that “the Sterno-Inferno Burner, which is the most important adjunct of all, is really a part of the Chafing Dish.” The complete set included a special spoon, fork, skimmer, egg poacher, toaster, omelet or chop dish, chafing-dish tray, and covered flagon (for wine, cream, etc.).

And finally, the chafing dish made its way into popular culture, a sure sign that it was well known, in the traditional song, The Eddystone Light:

My father was the keeper of the Eddystone light
And he slept with a mermaid one fine night
Out of this union there came three
A porpoise and a porgy and the other was me!
Yo ho ho, the wind blows free,
Oh for the life on the rolling sea!
One night, as I was a-trimming the glim
Singing a verse from the evening hymn
I head a voice cry out an “Ahoy!”
And there was my mother, sitting on a buoy.
Yo ho ho, the wind blows free,
Oh for the life on the rolling sea!
“Oh, what has become of my children three?”
My mother then inquired of me.
One’s on exhibit as a talking fish
The other was served in a chafing dish.
Yo ho ho, the wind blows free,
Oh for the life on the rolling sea!

And onward through the twentieth century, the chafing dish conferred status and importance on a meal, and continued to be, in one form or another (think fondue pots), one of the standard “important” gifts at middle-class weddings.

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