Hearth to Hearth: Mechanical Roasting on the Hearth – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – September 2002 (reprinted in March 2004)
By Alice Ross
Good roasts have always been the centerpieces of good meals. However, they have not always been easily available to all. To have them required the availability of good cuts from well-raised animals of the right breeds (expensive at any time), demanded a large amount of wood to maintain the fire, and much time and attention to keep them turning and roasting evenly. It is not surprising that from the beginning of mechanical gadgetry fine cooks have appreciated the ingenuity of labor-saving tools, particularly those that were put to the service of expensive meats.
Without such aids it had been necessary to do the turning by hand. Even the roasting of a small bird might be taxing, but a larger roast might truly test one’s endurance. Early drawings show young servants or family members, far less privileged but still not poor, sitting near the fire, perhaps inundated by smoke and heat, and presumably working steadily to keep all in motion. Scappi, a noted Italian chef of the sixteenth century, pictures just this in a large and otherwise elaborate kitchen. This must have been somewhat unsatisfactory for both the roast turner and the roast itself. A flagging bored or tired worker may have allowed the roast to burn on one side and remain raw on the other. Mechanical aids were clear assets.
The least complex and most inexpensive way to turn a roast required little investment, depended on string alone, and involved a semi-manual method. The roast was suspended at the end of a long string attached by its other end above, perhaps from a wrought-iron dangle spit; hanging free it required only the flick of the cook’s hand to set it spinning. Twisting and untwisting itself, it might have remained in motion for several minutes before another rewinding was needed. Handily, string roasters did not require complicated installations, and could be adapted to a number of fire sites. They worked best to prepare one or two small roasts at a time and fed only a limited number of eaters, a restriction that was in certain circumstances beneficial, but inadequate in a large establishment.
If you were a wealthy soul living over 300 years ago, you and your cook would have counted yourselves lucky if you had some kind of mechanical utensil to turn a large roast on a spit (or several on a series of spits) on the hearth of a large cooking fireplace. Perhaps the oldest and most impressive of these was the clock jack installed on the wall near the hearth-either above the lintel or off to one side-a devise that turned the spit through a system of belts or pulleys. In actuality this was an early rotisserie.
(Incidentally, the early English word jack refers to the name of a common man who does menial work, or to a contrivance that saves human labor!). Today we find it hard to imagine people living before the modern age of science and engineering able to manage the engineering of a geared, mechanical gadget. But in fact the great clocks of medieval cathedrals lent their principles to the developing batterie de cuisine. From the seventeenth-century a number of European kitchens, among them England and France, the jacks (like clocks) incorporated a series of gears and springs to do the work. They were activated by either a key and spring system or by hanging weights. The speed of the spit was regulated by the “governor,” a small weight or a series of fan blades on the jack that slowed the winding down; the weight of the meat on the spit worked the same way. The spit, tipped at one end by a grooved wheel that provided a track for the pulley, was itself suspended horizontally on a pair of “spit dogs,” or andirons with hooks mounted at regular matching heights. One could control the heat by raising or lowering the spits. After some twenty minutes, when the machine ran down (and perhaps a signal bell had dinged a few times) the cook rewound it for another twenty minutes of unattended roasting. It was the unattended part that was counted most, and the new ability to roast a great variety of meats at one time. With the growth of cities, colonies, wealth and power, expanding cooking needs needed accommodation.
The source of power for these labor-savers is also interesting. While elaborate mechanical gadgetry had obvious advantages, people of more limited means or needs managed to get by with systems that were at least partially manual. Thus one learns of early dog jacks where the animal itself, running in place on a wide moving belt, set the pulley-gear assembly in motion. (Incidentally, the word dog also refers to something, perhaps a tool, that does work.) Still another jack was powered by smoke: a series of fan blades set into the chimney were turned by the rising heated and smoky drafts. They were similarly attached to the spit through a series of pulleys, belts, and sometimes gears. Whatever the source of power, the mechanisms they drove offered the opportunity to do a greater volume of roasts at one time, and were clearly of great significance in the largest establishments-the kitchens of aristocracy and wealth, in catering halls, and in large inns.
These early pieces were followed by nineteenth-century English bottle jacks. Their mechanisms were housed inside a brass container shaped, of course, like a bottle-a broad canister held the works and was topped with a narrow neck projecting upward for hanging. Spring driven, they were wound up with a key and ran for a fair length of time before running down. These, too, were regulated by a heavy cast iron wheel, the governor, that hung horizontally below. The small hooks dangling from it– usually four–suggest that the meats or birds to be roasted were not very large. Bottle jacks were designed to hang inside a vertical tin reflecting oven, something like a domed round-back chair, legs and all. The drip pans under the roasts were often built in to the floor of the oven, sometimes as recessed wells. The large oven sat upright on the hearth, facing the coal grate (also vertical) that produced heat evenly up and down the suspended roast. In addition to the heat radiating from the fire, the sides and roof of the tin oven further reflected heat, making for more efficient use of fuel and more even roasting. I have tried these on my hearth, and find them to be inefficient at a low horizontal fire, as the heat does not reach high enough to cook the top of the roast. This reinforces the idea of bottle jacks used in tandem with the high coal or charcoal grates that were much used in eighteenth–and nineteenth century England.
Still another nineteenth-century mechanical jack was the spit engine, in which a horizontal spit was turned by a wind-up gear assembly that sat low, directly on the hearth in its own little housing. Like the bottle jacks, these did not require pulleys or belts, as the spit was attached directly to the gears. Once more a key tightened the spring, and several minutes of work were accomplished before rewinding. These are often dated to the 1830s, and must have been somewhat short-lived considering the imminent replacement of the hearth by cook stoves.
I imagine they were used on the hearth during the period when fireplaces and cookstoves overlapped, perhaps as an adjunct to the cookstove which generally produced inferior roasting (baking) of meats. Amazingly, on a recent trip to Italy, I found my host had purchased an Italian-made reproduction of this roasting apparatus, and we used it to prepare a most superior veal roast on his hearth.
In addition to these more commonly found jacks, Linda Campbell Franklin (300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles) has identified a few obscure pieces. Among them is the Planetarium Stove (New York City, 1839) that fueled a number of jacks working at the same time. Americans had no corner on this market, of course; Franklin described an Italian version (1827) that turned “130 different roasts at once, and plays twenty-four tunes, and whatever it plays, corresponds to a certain degree of cooking, which is perfectly understood by the cook. Thus, a leg of mutton a la anglaise, will be excellent at the 12th air; a fowl a la Flamande, will be juicy at the 18th, and so on.” Needless to say, only the most opulent, wealthy, or ambitious of kitchens would need one of these.
I look at my old Farborwear electric rotisserie, and remember the many fine chickens it prepared for our dinner table. At the time it seemed to be a simplified household version of heavy duty commercial equipment. What I came to realize, only after exploring roasting on the hearth, was that my supposedly “innovative” gadget was not really new, and could not match its predecessors for producing succulent meats with a slight suggestion of smokiness. I suppose any version of rotisseried meats is better than none, but I hope you will, one day, have the chance to spend an afternoon at a hearth, intermittently winding an old jack, and then taste for yourself.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Her web site is www.aliceross.com
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