On Facebook recently there was quite a lively discussion,
as well as plenty of oooohhhing and ahhhhhing, amongst
my assorted friends about the tin (or is it copper?) reflector
oven that’s depicted in the painting below:
Initially posted by Tammy DeLauter Fletcher, this is entitled
simply “The Cook.” It was done by the Dutch painter Gabriel
Metsu (1629-1667) and was most likely completed by him
at some point between 1657 and 1662.
Yes, you read that correctly: between the years 1657 and
1662. Indeed, Metsu was a mid-17th century painter.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit it: I thought these ovens were
only in use during the 19th, maybe the very late 18th, century
(at least here in America). I’m not really sure why. I’ve used
them often, but I’ve never really given it much thought. I’ve
never investigated whether they were available/used earlier.
Of course, I’ve done quite a bit of 18th century hearth cooking,
but my main focus has typically been the 19th. Not to mention,
that’s the time period in which I was initially trained (at Conner
Prairie, back when the year 1836 was the focus). However,
based on this painting, apparently reflector ovens were
around, even as early as the mid-1600s.
At the same time, though, it IS a Dutch painting. So perhaps
reflector ovens were common in Europe, even during the 17th
century, but were they also used on this side of the pond? It
seems likely that they may’ve been imported. Or perhaps they
were made here. However, I think it is generally believed that
being a tinsmith was more of an 1800s profession. You know,
due to British control of manufactured goods, that sort of thing.
Or, perhaps not? It’d definitely be interesting to research this
further, and to look at store inventories, newspaper ads, ship
records, and other assorted documents, to see if, and when,
such ovens were made in, or transported to, the colonies.
In any event, when this painting and the ensuing discussion
took place on Facebook, I remembered a passage I’d read
in Prospect Books’ facsimile reprint of Hannah Glasse’s book,
The Art of Cookery, made [sic] Plain & Easy (1747). In the
glossary is this definition (and illustration) of “Tin Oven”:
The reference to a tin oven, [on page] 91,
is to the ‘Dutch oven’ which was in common
use and which stood in front of the fire. The
food being cooked was exposed to direct
heat and also to reflected heat from the polished
tin interior. A door in the back could be opened
to permit viewing and basting.
Now, what’s interesting is that all the receipts on page 91
in Glasse’s book are for fish, and only one specifically calls
for cooking the dish in “a Tin Oven.” It’s the receipt “Salmon
in Cases.” The instructions say to wrap salmon pieces in paper
and “lay them on a Tin Plate.” It then states that “a Tin Oven
before the Fire does best” (I imagine as opposed to a brick
bake oven). Which, of course, obviously means that the fish
is NOT put on the spit!
So, in a typical tin reflector oven, where would you put a plate
of fish “in cases”? On the floor/bottom of it? But that puts it too
low in relationship to the fire, yes? So, in order to gain some
height, could the plate perhaps be balanced on top of the spit?
Could that work, would it stay securely? (I’m thinking maybe,
but not likely?) Then I thought, “Well, perhaps Glasse means
one of those tin ovens with a shelf? The ones that’re often
used for small breads (either loose or in a pan)?” And if so,
does that mean those types of tin ovens were also around
in the early to mid 18th century? Makes perfect sense, yes?
Or no? And so, is there possibly a slight problem with this
glossary’s definition of “Tin Oven”: i.e. it’s not JUST the ones
with a spit and basting door, but it’s also other types?
Luckily for me, I was scheduled to cook again at the hearth
in the kitchen of the Israel Crane House on Sunday, March 1,
which meant I’d be able to conduct my own experiments.
I could figure out just how this fish receipt was to be
cooked. What fun!
So, stay tuned!
UP NEXT: Experiments in cooking fish in reflector ovens
For more information about Gabriel Metsu, his life, this painting
and other works, check out this site.