Posted in Bringing Alive The Past, History, Mrs Beeton, Museum, TV Programme, Vintage, World War Two

Low Energy Cooking Bygones

Queen's Pudding Boiler, 1915, featured in Mrs Beeton Book of Household Management.

I have had my Breville slow cooker for three years now, “try it,” my mum said, “it’s easy to use and very economical on the electric, it costs the same to use as an ordinary lightbulb”.  “Economical on the electric” was particularly relevant as my husband and I were just reeling from a quarterly energy bill of over £400 and we only lived in a small, one-bedroomed property. Ouch!  The recession was biting, energy tariffs were on an upward trajectory and I always had the oven on because I love to cook.  However, the slow cooker sat redundant for several months in my kitchen.  A shiny, silver and black beacon just waiting for me to embrace and welcome it into the family but to be honest it just didn’t inspire me.  Then I watched an episode of Jamie Oliver’s cookery series, Jamie’s American Roadtrip (2009).  He was at a rodeo in Cody, Wyoming and had briefly assumed the role of a ‘Camp Jack’, learning how to slow cook beef using a Dutch Oven.  This traditional method of outdoor cooking had been popular with the pioneering settlers of the Wild West.  In Dutch Oven cooking the meal is prepared in a cast iron vessel using the ‘one-pot’ method. The lid is then put on the pot and the vessel covered over with hot coals and left to slow-cook for 5 or 6 hours, depending on what type of meat is being used.  Suddenly, I looked at my slow cooker with renewed (historical!) interest.  I prepared my first beef casserole, left it on a low heat overnight for 8 hours and enjoyed one of the tastiest meals I have ever had.  I haven’t looked back since and am now in possession of a wide range of slow cooking recipe books and am now quite adventurous with this style.   I have had my fair share of failures though, my lemon curd was a disaster and sausages don’t really like being slow-cooked, they disintegrate.  But lamb, ham hocks and beef are the slow cooker’s best friend.  Oh, our subsequent electricity bills?  Well, on a bad quarter they are now £150.  Slow cookers are not just for stews and casseroles, you can also make soups in them and they are brilliant for rice pudding. It is not surprising then that since the recession began here in the UK in 2008, sales of slow cookers have sky-rocketed.  They are easy to use, economical and produce exceptionally tasty food.  As the old saying goes, ‘Mother really does know best.’

Advertisement for Welbank's Boilerette 1911. Welbank were a London-based company.
Tudor chafing dish from Saintonge, South-West France. Tudor House and Gardens Museum, Southampton, Hampshire.

The chafing dish was popular in Tudor times. These attractive cooking vessels enabled the food to be either slow cooked from scratch or just heated through at the table. The food would then be kept hot throughout the meal, like an early version of a ‘hostess trolley’.  The chafing dish method was also popular in Victorian and Edwardian times.  Chafing dishes during these periods would have consisted of four parts: the spirit lamp; the frame or stand in which the lamp is set and on top of which the chafing pan rests; a hot-water pan, with two handles, which also serves the same purpose as the lower part of the double boiler; and the blazer or pan in which the food is cooked.  In her Book of Household Management, Mrs Beeton dedicated a chapter to low energy cooking methods, ‘Chafing Dish, Casserole, and Paper-Bag Cookery,’.  She warns that this type of cooking does have its hazards: ‘The lamp is the most important part, and is furnished with either a cotton or an asbestos wick.  Spirit is the fuel commonly used, but only the every best should be purchased, as the cheaper kinds are often troublesome, and sometimes dangerous.  The lamp holds about two gills of spirit, and that quantity will burn for about half an hour. The Chafing Dish should rest upon a metal tray, for a slight draught may cause the flame to flare outwards and soil, or even set fire to the table-cloth.’ (p. 1514, 1915 edition).

1915 illustration of a chafing dish and its various parts - nos. 1, 2, 3 and 7. Bottom left - no. 9 - is an image of an Edwardian Dutch oven. From Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management.

The pressure cooker is another, still popular, type of low energy cooking device.  My father-in-law uses it to cook the most incredible steamed artichokes that you have ever tasted.  This method is quicker than the chafing dish or slow cooker but just as economical.  Pressure cookers first appeared in the UK as early as the 17th century.  In the 19th century they were known as digesters.  The Science Museum in London has an example of a late Victorian, cast steel, pressure cooker by A. Kendrick & Sons, dated from between 1885-1895.  Click Here for image and details.

Easiwork Health Cooker, model No. 9. Cast alloy pressure cooker, brought in 1950. On display at St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.

In the early 20th century ‘digesters’ were renamed ‘pressure cookers’. Their popularity grew amongst housewives due to their labour-saving and health giving properties.  By the 1930s they had become relatively attractive looking items of cookware in spite of their pressure gauges, spring-load pistons and warning regulators.

The Easiwork Health Cooker, Model No. 9, 1950. Cast alloy body with handles, lid, restraining bar and screw knob, pressure guage and pressure release valve, rubber gasket and original food baskets inside. On display at St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.
Easiwork Health Cooker, 1950. On display at St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.

The science behind the cooker is very clever, high pressure is created and this allows water to cook the contents beyond its boiling point.  During the pre and post-war period, the British company Easiwork, based at 242 Tottenham Court Road, London, was one of the many pioneering manufacturers of this item.  In one trade advertisement from 1937 they claimed that the Easiwork Health Cooker:

  • Was the ‘greatest cooking development of modern times’;
  • ‘Saves 12/6 in £ on fuel, retains vitamins, alleviates constipation, saves half the cooking time’;
  • ‘Can be used equally in a country-house or one-room flat’;
  • Used with a wide range of cooking fuels and devices ‘gas, electric, oil or primus stove or coal range’;
  • Can ‘roast, bake, steam, stew, braise and fry’.

    Easiwork Health Cooker, Model No. 6, 1932. Portsmouth City Museum, Portsmouth, Hampshire

Not all low energy cooking devices require a continuous supply of fuel. In the United States Sears Roebuck & Co featured the ‘fireless cooker’ in their 1915 catalogue.  The ‘Sanitas’ was a vessel which had soapstone radiators that could be heated in a fireplace then placed in the bottom of the aluminum-lined containers.  Aluminum kettles or inset pans containing the food were then inserted and the contents cooked slowly and evenly either overnight or throughout the day.  In the UK, Grimwade’s Quick-Cooker of 1912-14, was another clever invention created by Reuben Clews of Birmingham.  Clews sold his idea to the company Grimwade who were promptly granted a patent for it and then began producing the item in, of all places, China.  The Quick-Cooker came in three sizes and did not require the aid of a pudding cloth.  Grimwade claimed that it ‘cooks the contents quickly from centre to circumference, stews – meat can be kept hot for hours without over-cooking or getting dry’.  After you had placed the food in the ceramic container, before you secured it down where indicated by string and put on the lid, you had to place a small piece of pastry, dough or bread into the central hollow thus creating a watertight seal.

Grimwade's Quick-Cooker, 1912-1914. Red House Museum, Christchurch, Dorset.

With the onset of World War Two and the introduction of fuel rationing, fuel-less cooking came into its own again.  The hay-box was born.  The portable hay-box could be made from a spare gas-mask carrier and the Ministry of Food provided the public with full instructions on how to assemble one.  The wooden boxes were insulated with hay, newspapers or blankets.  The food would first be brought to the boil on the stove and then transferred to the hay-box. Porridge took 6 hours, a meat stew 3 1/2 hours and a suet pudding 2 1/2 hours.  Interestingly, hay-box inspired cooking has recently made a comeback.  Mr D’s Thermal Cooker is a eco-friendly thermal slow cooker that needs no power. The company have even produced a Thermal Cookery recipe book to go with the product.  For further information on Mr D’s thermal cookware CLICK HERE.  Mr D The Thermal Cook will be making an appearance on Saturday 14th April, 3pm, in the Cookery Theatre, Community Centre, High Street, Milford-on-Sea, Hampshire as part of this year’s Milford-on-Sea Food Week.  For more information on this event, CLICK HERE.

Mrs Beeton’s Recipe for Cooking Scrambled Eggs with Oysters in a Chafing Dish

Ingredients:  1 dozen oysters, 6 eggs, 1 oz of fresh butter, 1 teaspoonful of anchovy paste, salt and pepper.

Method: Mix the butter with the anchovy paste.  Beat up the eggs, and season with salt and pepper.  Melt the anchovy butter in the chafing dish, when hot pour in the eggs, stir lightly until the mixture begins to thicken, then add quickly the oysters, previously bearded and cut into halves or dice.  Serve from the chafing dish with fingers of toasted bread, buttered and slightly spread with anchovy paste.  Takes 10 minutes to make and is sufficient for 3 to 4 persons.

Wedgwood Pap Warmer, c. 1817 on display at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Earthenware. The bottom held a burner which heated water in a deep lower basin. The upper basin contained a drink or a liquid food like 'pap', a mixture of bread and milk which was given to babies and invalids.


Social historian, based in the UK.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s