In my September 30th post I mentioned that I had becomed interested in chafing dishes. I had been doing some research on an oyster fork marked “H. M. Kinsley & Baumann”. One thing led to another and I discovered that H. M. Kinsley wrote a cookbook on chafing dish recipes for Gorham back in 1894. I have to confess that I have never cooked or served anything in a chafing dish. At that point I didn’t even own a chafing dish (although I do now). As I looked online at antique chafing dishes, it dawned on me that this was the perfect way to cook during a power outage. With winter coming, the thought of sitting in the cold and dark was again on my mind. I’ve mentioned in earlier posts about being without electricity for nine days during a freak late October snow storm a few years ago. No power, no heat, no running water for nine days. Trees and limbs were down in my yard and up and down the street. The town didn’t clear the road for days and finally the neighbors took to getting out their chain saws to clear a path and plow the street themselves. So when I saw how a chafing dish functioned and realized that I could cook a hot meal over Sterno, I decided I had to get one for myself. It would give me something to look forward to when the power went off and make the occasion somewhat festive almost, if you know what I mean. Besides, the sterno would also provide a little light for a couple of hours. Now I started my research on chafing dishes in earnest. Although the chafing dish dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the chafing dish craze in the United States began in the 1890s and lasted into the early part of the Twentieth Century with periods of popularity ebbing and flowing since. Silver manufacturers were all jumping on the bandwagon in the 1890s, producing many different designs in sterling, silverplate, brass, copper and bronze. Gorham published Kinsley’s cookbook in 1894 and included many illustrations of their various models. (This cookbook is for sale at my Etsy shop and can be found here: https://www.etsy.com/listing/244930959/one-hundred-recipes-for-the-chafing-dish
Gorham even produced a yachting version of the chafing dish with movable spirit lamp and dish that would swing with the movement of the ship, thus not spilling over.
Meriden Britannia’s 1891 advertisement below states they published a little volume “On the Chafing Dish” which was available on request.
S. Sternau was another manufacturer of chafing dishes during the 1890s. This company is still in business today under the name “Sterno”. Talk about a success story!
Even into the 1920s, the chafing dish was still popular. The following Community Plate ad from 1921 shows a woman beautifully attired and subtitled “After the Theater”. It states that using this chafing dish set is “so much more in keeping with the intimacy of the occasion.” I guess that means that you don’t have to wake up the servants to whip up some rabbit or wiggle; you can do it yourself while dressed in your evening gown.
And talking about “wiggle”, in case you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, a “wiggle” is a dish made with white sauce, peas and canned tuna or shrimp. Fannie Farmer published a cookbook in 1899 entitled “Chafing Dish Possibilities” and this is her recipe for Shrimp Wiggle:
Carnation Milk featured a chafing dish in one of their ads:
And so did Beech-Nut in their ad for sliced canned bacon:
The text in the Beech-Nut ad shown above refers to “Yorkshire Rabbit”. Wait, wasn’t it “rarebit”? Did “Yorkshire Rabbit” really have rabbit in it? The answer is no. Wikipedia states: ” Welsh rarebit (spelling based on folk etymology) or Welsh rabbit is a dish made with a savoury sauce of melted cheese and various other ingredients and served hot, after being poured over slices (or other pieces) of toasted bread, or the hot cheese sauce may be served in a chafing dish like a fondue, accompanied by sliced, toasted bread. ” Following is H. M. Kinsley’s recipe for Welsh Rarebit:
With regard to the “rarebit” or “rabbit” correctness, Wikipedia goes on to state: The word rarebit is a corruption of rabbit, “Welsh rabbit” being first recorded in 1725 and the variant “Welsh rarebit” being first recorded in 1785 by Francis Grose. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Welsh rarebit’ is an “etymologizing alteration. There is no evidence of the independent use of rarebit”. “Eighteenth-century English cookbooks reveal that it was then considered to be a luscious supper or tavern dish, based on the fine cheddar-type cheeses and the wheat breads […] . Surprisingly, it seems there was not only a Welsh Rabbit, but also an English Rabbit, an Irish and a Scotch Rabbit, but nary a rarebit.” Michael Quinion writes: “Welsh rabbit is basically cheese on toast (the word is not ‘rarebit’ by the way, that’s the result of false etymology; ‘rabbit’ is here being used in the same way as ‘turtle’ in ‘mock-turtle soup’, which has never been near a turtle, or ‘duck’ in ‘Bombay duck‘, which was actually a dried fish called bummalo)”. The entry in Merriam-Webster‘s Dictionary of English Usage is “Welsh rabbit, Welsh rarebit” and states: “When Francis Grose defined Welsh rabbit in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785, he mistakenly indicated that rabbit was a corruption of rarebit. It is not certain that this erroneous idea originated with Grose….” In his 1926 edition of the Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the grammarian H. W. Fowler states a forthright view: “Welsh Rabbit is amusing and right. Welsh Rarebit is stupid and wrong.” The word rarebit has no other use than in Welsh rabbit and “rarebit” alone has come to be used in place of the original name.” “Welsh Rarebit is stupid and wrong”… I guess that is why Beech-Nut used the term “rabbit” in their ad! There were many variations of Welsh Rarebit or Rabbit..like the “Buck Rabbit” which was served with an egg on top, and a “Blushing Bunny” which had a little tomato soup blended in, and a “Kentucky Hot Brown” which had bacon and turkey added. The “rarebit” or “rabbit” was such a popular dish that a comic strip was popular during the early 1900s entitled “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend”. Following is taken from Wikipedia: “American cartoonist Winsor McCay had an intriguing insight into the effects of the Welsh rarebit where characters often awoke from dreams after eating the dish. His comic strip titled Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was published in newspapers from 1904 to 1925, and made into a silent movie of the same name in 1906 (see Dream of a Rarebit Fiend).”
This comic strip centers on an individual who has disturbing dreams after feasting on rarebit. One of my favorites is “The Pet”. You see a little scrawny animal walking toward the front door of a house. It looks like a hybrid cat / dog but meows, so I guess it’s a cat. The lady of the house opens the door, picks the cat up and takes him in. She gives him some milk and immediately he gets larger. The husband comes home from work and the cat is seated at the dinner table. As it eats dinner with them, it gets bigger and bigger. It eventually gets so big it terrorizes the town and eats everything in sight. This story was the first to feature “the creature that ate….” theme (like Godzilla or The Blob). Sunday night chafing dish suppers were all the rage around the turn of the century. It wasn’t just supper…it was a social occasion. Just imagine the buffet set up with chafing dishes full of rarebit / rabbit, wiggle, Swedish meatballs, beef stroganoff or chipped beef and all those other delightful chafing dish recipes. What fun! College girls around that time were also known to whip up a rabbit or wiggle or two in their dorm rooms after lights out. Some were even known to add a little cooking sherry into the recipe. Party time! The authors of the cookbooks written in the 1890s didn’t hesitate to cook raw meat in chafing dishes. It was not just considered a means of keeping a dish warm for them, it was touted as a means of cooking food. Food like liver and onions, frogs legs, soft shell crabs and steak were all included in these recipes. Today, sources advise that the chafing dish should only be used to keep food warm. I don’t envision doing any heavy duty cooking in my chafing dish but I certainly could use it to warm up a can of pasta fagioli or chili on a cold, dark night. And, as usual, this research into chafing dishes has led me to other things….things like oil lamps and French steam coffee pots. Things that don’t need electricity to function. Things to help keep life a little more pleasant when the power goes off. I’ll be discussing them in another post.