How fire was discovered, when it was first applied to the needs of human beings, the origin and early use of cooking and heating utensils, all are concealed from us in the mists that surround the life of prehistoric man. But at the dawn of history, even before the beginning of our era, crude appliances for cooking were in use; and, without doubt, one of the earliest of these was an utensil corresponding in some particulars, at least, to the chafing-dish of to-day.
The chafing-dish is a portable utensil used upon the table, either for cooking food or for keeping food hot after it has been cooked by other means. In ancient times, the fuel of the chafing-dish was either live coals or olive oil; to-day we use either electricity, gas, alcohol or colonial spirits.
The first chafing-dishes of which historic mention is made consisted of a pan heated over a pot of burning oil, the pan resting upon a frame which held the pot of oil. It was with such an utensil, perhaps, that the Israelitish women cooked the locusts of Egypt and Palestine, for these were eaten as a common food by the people of the biblical lands and age.
Mommsen, in his history of Rome, while speaking of the extravagance of the times, as shown in the table furnishings, probably refers to the chafing-dish when he says: "A well-wrought bronze cooking-machine came to cost more than an estate." The idea that this might be the utensil referred to is strengthened by the fact that many chafing-dishes have been found in the ruins of Pompeii. These were made of bronze, and highly ornamented. Evidently, olive oil was the fuel used in these dishes.
Coming down to more modern times, Madame de Staël had a dish of very unique pattern, and, when driven by the command of Napoleon from her beloved Paris, she carried her chafing-dish with her into exile as one of her most cherished household gods. At the present day among the favored few, who have full purses, are found sets of little silver chafing-dishes about four inches square. These tiny dishes rest upon a doylie-covered plate, and a bird or rarebit may be served in them as a course at dinner, one to each guest. The cooking is not done in these dishes, and they are not furnished with lamps; in them the food, while it is being eaten, is simply kept hot by means of a tiny pan filled with hot water.
In reality, the modern chafing-dish is a species of bain marie, or double boiler, with a lamp so arranged that cooking can be done without other appliances. It consists of four parts. The first is the blazer, or the pan in which the cooking is done; this is provided with a long handle. The second is the hot-water pan, which corresponds to the lower part of the double boiler; this should be provided with handles, and is a very inconvenient dish without them. The third is the frame upon which the hot-water pan rests, and in which the spirit-lamp is set. The last, but by no means least, part is the lamp; this is provided with a cotton or an asbestos wick. When the lamp has a cotton wick, the flame is regulated by turning the wick up or down, as in an ordinary lamp. At present this style of lamp is found only in the more expensive grades of dishes,--silver-plated, and costing from $15 upwards. When asbestos is used as the wick, the lamp is filled with this porous stone, which is to be saturated with alcohol immediately before using, and the top is covered with a wire netting. The flame is regulated by means of metal slides, which open and shut over the netting, thus cutting off or letting on the flame, as it is desired.
The chafing-dish should always rest upon a tray, as a very slight draught of air, or the expansion of the alcohol when heated, will sometimes cause the flame to flare out and downward, and thus an unprotected tablecloth might be set on fire.
Often a cutlet dish is considered a necessary part of a chafing-dish outfit; but as one of the chief merits of the chafing-dish consists in the possibility of serving a repast the instant it is cooked, there would seem to be a want of propriety in removing the cooked article to a platter and garnishing the dish before serving.
A polished wooden spoon, with long handle and small bowl, is a most convenient utensil to use while cooking the dainty; but the regulation chafing-dish spoon is needed when serving the same. Such a spoon has a broad bowl of silver or aluminum, with rounded end, and a long ebony handle.
The filler is a most convenient article for use, when the lamp needs replenishing with alcohol, but in its absence the alcohol may be turned into a small pitcher and from that into the lamp. A lamp of the average size holds about five tablespoonfuls of alcohol, and this quantity will supply heat for at least half an hour.
Glass, granite or tin measuring-cups, upon which thirds or quarters are indicated, also tea- and tablespoons, are essential for accurate measurements.
Several items are essential to the successful serving of a meal from the chafing-dish. To be a pronounced success, the work must be done noiselessly and gracefully. The preparation of all articles is the same for the chafing-dish as for the common stove; but where the mixing is done at the table, as for a rarebit, the recipe takes on an additional flavor, according to the deftness with which it is done.
Let, then, everything be ready and at hand, before the guests or family assemble at the table. Have the lamp filled and covered, so that it may remain filled. Have all seasonings measured out in a cup. In case the yolks of eggs are to be used, they will not injure, having been beaten beforehand, if they be kept covered. When oysters are to be served, have them washed, freed from bits of shell, drained, and left in a pitcher from which they can be readily poured. The quantity of butter used in the recipes is indicated by tablespoonfuls, and may be measured out beforehand and rolled into dainty balls with butter-hands, a spoonful in each ball.
Bear in mind that the hot-water pan is to be used in all cases where the double boiler would be used, if the cooking were to be done upon the range. For instance, where the recipe calls for milk or cream, except in the making of a sauce, use the bath from the beginning. Also, be careful always to place the blazer in the bath before eggs are added to any mixture. Indeed, the hot-water pan is the one feature of the chafing-dish which it is most important to notice; for on the proper use of the hot-water pan the value of the chafing-dish as an exponent of scientific cookery entirely depends. She who well understands the principles upon which the use of this rests has gained no small insight into the secret of all cookery, be it scientific, economic or hygienic; for a knowledge of the effect of heat at different temperatures, applied to food, is the very foundation-stone upon which all cookery rests.
Although the chafing-dish is especially adapted to the needs of the bachelor, man or maid, its use should not be relegated entirely to the homeless or the Bohemian. In the sick-room, at the luncheon-table, on Sunday night, it is most serviceable and wellnigh indispensable; it always suggests hearty welcome and good cheer.
While it is out of place, at any ceremonial meal, as a means of cooking, even on such occasions a lobster Newburgh or other dish that needs be served piping hot to be eaten at its best may be brought on in individual chafing-dishes. These are supplied with hot-water pans and lamps. At a chafing-dish supper each guest can prepare his own rarebit.
Any operation in cooking that can be performed on the kitchen range may be successfully carried out on the chafing-dish, provided one be skilled in its use. But as the dining-room is usually chosen as the site in which to test its possibilities, here it were well to confine one's efforts to such dishes as will not give rise to too much disorder. Sautéing and frying it were better to reserve for the range and a well-ventilated kitchen.
Alcohol is most commonly used in the lamp of the chafing-dish; and, on account of its cheapness, one is often advised to buy wood alcohol. But in large markets, where many fowl are singed daily over an alcohol flame, the marketmen will tell you that the very best article is none too good for their purpose. It does not smoke, wastes less rapidly, and in the end will prove quite as economical.
In regard to the chafing-dish and its most prominent use, some one may fittingly ask: Is it hygienic to eat at midnight? Can one keep one's health and eat late suppers? As in all things pertaining to food, no set rules can be given to meet every case; much depends upon constitutional traits, individual habits and idiosyncrasies. One may practise what another cannot attempt. As a rule, however, people who eat a hearty dinner, after the work of the day is done, do not need to eat again until the following breakfast hour.
Those who are engaged, either mentally or physically, throughout the evening, cannot with impunity, eat a very hearty meal previous to that effort; but after their work is done they need nourishing food, and food that is both easily digested and assimilated. But even these should not eat and then immediately retire; for during sleep all the bodily organs, including the stomach, become dormant. Food partaken at this hour is not properly taken care of, and in too many cases must be digested when the individual has awakened, out of sorts, the next morning.
It is well to remember, also, that, at any time after food is eaten, there should be a period of rest from all active effort; for then the blood flows from the other organs of the body to the stomach, and the work of digestion is begun. Oftentimes we hear men say they must smoke after meals, for unless they do so they cannot digest their food. They fail to see that it is not the tobacco that promotes digestion, but the enforced repose.
But, if we must eat at midnight, the question may well be asked, What shall we eat? That which can be digested and assimilated with the least effort on the part of the digestive organs. And among such things we may note oysters, eggs and game, when these have been properly--that is, delicately--cooked.