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Local News

May 14, 2014

Do you know what this is?

OSKALOOSA —

This past week's artifact from the Nelson Pioneer Farm is a fireless cooker.

No one ventured a guess this week on the identity of the artifact.

Nelson Pioneer Farm curator Kelly Halbert did some research on the artifact. She wrote: “Fireless Cooker

The fireless cooker was a wonderful invention for the busy cook, especially on a hot summer day. These cooking boxes were also called hay boxes because that is what they started out as – a box with a pot of hot food in it surrounded by hay as insulation. Over a long period of cooking time – much like a crock pot on low – the food would be done.

The process required the cook to heat a soapstone radiator to 450 degrees F and place it in the bottom of the cooker. The food was heated to boiling and placed on top of the block, then the insulated lid was closed and the cook was able to do other things while the food cooked slowly and thoroughly. For the most part the method worked well, but there was always the possibility of the temperature dropping to low and bacterial growth contaminating the food if the radiators were not reheated properly. Soups, stews, even roast and breads could be cooked in the cookers. Cheaper cuts of meats were made tender by slow cooking which also worked well for baking beans and other legumes. In a day when porridge or oatmeal required 12 hours of slow cooking, the fireless cooker was indeed more efficient.

Fireless cooking was popular during the late 19th century and through the first few decades of the 20th. There were several reasons that this type of cooking became popular. First of all, it was more economic when the costs of coal oil and gas for the stove were considered. Many stoves were not insulated and the radiating heat made the kitchen unpleasantly warm “cooking the cook” claimed Margaret J. Mitchell, author of The Fireless Cookbook, 1913. Mitchell also discussed another reason for fireless cooking: the amount of time spent tending meals. Cakes had to be turned every few minutes, roasts basted, fires stoked and pots watched and stirred. She claimed that after a careful study she realized that ¾ of her time was spent in the kitchen tending food. Another reason that this type of cookery appealed to the American Housewife was the change is attitudes towards women and their proper place. The sentimental domestic housewife was being replaced by the modern suffragette. For the new woman, toilsome drudgery was being replaced by efficiency and home economics.”

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