The Fireless Cooker

The fireless cooker was a strange beast. Even its name seemed to be a contradiction in terms. It cooked without fire and provided an effortless hot meal. Its early history is open to speculation and lies vaguely in the past, but came into prominence at the turn of the twentieth century, at least for the modern collector, with the development and promotion of commercial versions.

It may be that the origin of fireless cookers arose from the needs of early rural folk whose work sometimes took them too far from home to get back for the much needed noon dinner. Imagine a haying crew or harvesters in somewhat distant fields, pressing on to accomplish as much as possible, for as long as favorable weather held, but whose arduous labors demanded nutritional recharging and physical rest. An easy carry-along meal of bread and cheese may not have sufficed for such demanding occasions; the time it took to travel home and then back would have cut substantially into the necessary restoration of body and spirit.

The fireless cookery system required that a long-cooking soup, stew, or porridge be set on to cook very early in the day. When it was roughly half-cooked (and presumably synchronized with the departure time of our hypothetical farmer ), it was placed—food, pot, cover and all—into a tightly closed container and buried within an insulated container, to be carried along for eventual consumption. During this time, the food continued to cook via its own residual heat, and could be expected to be ready a few hours later when needed.

Tracking down early fireless cookers reveals occasional early references to “hay boxes.” These seem to have been crude, homemade containers of almost any sort, filled with hay (insulation), and in which a hot pot of food was kept warm until such time as it could be consumed. This kind of make-shift equipment was unlikely to have survived in recognizable form, and even collectors of folk art will probably not be able to identify them from such vague and indefinite descriptions.

Hay boxes accompanied not only farmers but also many overland emigrants to the western territories. Families traveled with constant pressure to cover as many miles during daylight as they possibly could, and could not allow themselves the time to start fires and cook in the middle of the day. In fact, surviving trail maps indicate plainly that travelers could not expect supplies of potable water and burnable firewood at all stopping places. Given the arduousness of walking miles each day, and the need for sufficient calories, substantial noon dinners (hopefully hot) were essential. The problem was solved by cooking late the previous evening, occasionally overnight and early morning, and then, before leaving the site, packing the hot, perhaps unfinished noon dinner in a portable hay box for final cooking or keeping hot.

The term “hay box,” still in use by 1900, was soon to be supplanted by another term: the “fireless cooker.” These were sturdier hinge-lidded affairs, wooden boxes with hay insulation packed around carefully shaped and sized holes that would just hold covered metal pails or canisters of food. Margaret J. Mitchell, in her thorough-going work The Fireless Cook Book [New York: 1909], used both terms, and touted them as a new adjunct in the home kitchen or small institutions—boarding houses or lunch-rooms, for example. She recommended them as labor-saving and a means to better-tasting and nutritious cookery. Her book offered directions for making several models at home, and they seem to be relatively simple and common-sensical. She cites the advantages and disadvantages of hay boxes made of purchased boxes or barrels, styles of kettles and pots, insulation materials, etc. and explains how to best use them. Mitchell also offered a large number of both original and adapted recipes. Citing their considerable early use in Norway and other European nations, she declared that dishes usually prepared by boiling or steaming, and even some kinds of baking, could be prepared in a simple hay box, and believed that the newly developed insulated cooker, an offshoot of manufactured fireless cookers, would work well for baking. She recommended them for their economy of fuel, space on the stove, efforts, utensils, work time, and wholesome results. And she noted the absence of heat and odors in the kitchen, improved flavors, and bearing on “the servant question.”

Eventually fireless cookers were manufactured as metal chests. These were double-walled (to hold insulation) steel boxes on legs. The interior was all metal, and featured built-in cylindrical holes to hold the covered canisters that just fit them. In addition, they now contained pairs of thick soapstone plates, also sized to just fit the holes, one below and one atop the food canister. The heavy hinged, double-walled lid fit neatly over these. Some had specially insulated cushions to place between the canister tops and soapstone plates and the lid. These soapstone cylinders were a new feature- the pre-heated stones added heat for more efficient cooking times and temperatures. In earlier versions, it is possible that the same kinds of preheated soapstones that heated small portable warmers (to be carried to church or in a carriage in winter to keep one’s feet warm) were adapted to such cookery.

It may be of particular significance that so many of the books and pamphlets promoting fireless cookers were written in 1917 and 1918, possibly influenced by the needs of World War I. Constance C. Radcliffe Cooke’s The Cooking-Box: How To Make And Use It, Together With Eighty Economical Recipes Adapted For Fireless Cookery, was used as a text in local English Cooking Centres and cooking schools throughout Britain; American ephemera- Fireless Cooking, Containing Directions and Recipes ( 1918 ) and Delicious Fireless Cooked Dishes (1919) seem to be similarly influenced. War needs appear to have capitalized on this earlier technique.

Margaret J. Mitchell, an American writer addressing the social and cultural needs of her peers, focused on the new perception that the new modern woman could free herself for an afternoon out, while still having a hot dinner for her family in the evening. This angle was clearly featured in commercial promotional ephemera and cookbooks. In some ways this reflected the new craze that brought “science” into the kitchen, and cooking schools’ vision that fireless cookers were “the wave of the future.”

This is a clear example of social need being the mother of invention. Freeing up women’s time fit the orientation of the “modern woman” of the time, who had increasingly taken on the important work of philanthropy—fund raising to support causes (churches, welfare reform, community improvement, or politics). In addition, the “New American Girl” was athletic and involved in women’s clubs dedicated to education, culture, or entertainment. As such fireless cookers were one of the early home technology innovations that were meant to take women out of the home, as opposed to so many domestic innovations, among them the woodstove and the canning jar, that increased household responsibilities and kept women home-bound. In this light, one can make a parallel to the modern crock pot, a standby also designed for women out of the home. Although crockpots depend on electricity, their rationale is the same—a slow-cooking moist dish that one sets up in the morning and eats some hours later as a main dinner dish.

In light of the centuries-long, slow evolution of hearth technology and its subsequent cook-stove adaptations, the fireless cooker appears to have used its “primitive” roots to leap into the early twentieth century kitchen. What may have seemed an incredibly revolutionary technique to early crock-pot users was really just another adaptation to changing fuels. Today it would be interesting to learn just how many kitchens held them, how often they were indeed used, and whether they were more common in cooking schools and home economics classes than they were in homes. In any case, they seem to have faded away and become novelties within only a few decades. Perhaps they required too much space, gave way to easily adjustable gas and electric stoves, or reflected a basic change in women’s cookery.

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.aliceross.com

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