Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Stove, or Cooker, or Range, part II

The Hunter-gatherer life presents a daily problem: Where is the next mouthful to come from?
This frivolous question tended to blot out all thoughts about matters of import such as the nature of God, or why did the sun shine, or why did some colors go together while others gave you the absolute hab-dabs. These sorts of inquiries were left for postprandial discussion groups. Where they belonged.[Lest anyone think this is too silly, consider that this pretty is 35,000 years old]
If it happened that a large animal was caught, any part of it not eaten right then would call in the scavengers and other competition. If they were beaten off then the carcass promptly rotted. That was okay up to a point because the wise knew where to find the herbs that covered the taste. But after a point there was no keeping the meat down.
There were a couple of things you might do. Pull the meat apart into thin strings and hang them in the sun, or over a slow fire (if you happened to have one) until they turned dark and dry and brittle. This made for interesting chewing.
A better trick was to pound it to crumbs and mix with almost as much fat and add in fruit and nuts. This made pemmican and kept quite satisfactorily. With a few greens the nutrition was good too.
Another option was to salt the meat. With a lot of salt. That meant spending time at the sea shore drying water to claim the salt. Inland there were natural salt outcroppings, as well.
A third possibility involved stewing the meat in its own juice and storing it in skin bags well coated, particularly at the seams, with fat. With a layer of fat at the top to complete the seal, damaging air was kept out. Salt was still useful, but a lot less.
But one sees that the real problem is fire. Fire is not readily portable. Alchemists might acclaim it a near universal solvent if they looked in it's direction.
Our intrepid neolithic chemists were discovering the relationship of air (oxygen) and both animal meat and fire. Too much destroyed. Only a little preserved. (For more on cooking with fire see A Proper Fire.)
The major hurdle was starting a fire. Take away the fuel or let it be consumed and the fire would stop. To keep one going meant almost constant attention. How did you either preserve or start a fire while on the move? How did you start the fires at home if every fire in the village was out? Rubbing sticks together? Flint and steel? Oops -- no steel for a long time yet. How about stone on stone? (Ever try these boy scout tricks? They are not easy. They are not easy even if you have the 'modern' wherewithal of the eighteenth century. See Flint and Steel and Flint and Steel Fire Lighting Tips for an authoritative discussion of the problems and solution.)
These hunter-gatherer daily dilemmas were transmuted with settlement and adoption of a grain based diet. Villages soon developed the rudimentary concepts of Vestal Virgins to tend the flame that acted as the central repository for all home fires.
Meat could be eaten raw. Grain must be cooked to provide any nutrition for humans at all. So fire became a near neighbor. Moving in with fire was not done by any with a survival instinct. But a fire in the yard was acceptable. A large, smooth rock could make a griddle to fry some flour and water paste to make crackers, or matzos.
Here I am at a major subject branch. Let us leave the natural history of wild yeast for another post, and attempt to resume the present topic. You hadn't noticed there was one? Pay closer attention then. Strewth.
The major innovation at this point was the enclosure of fire within a stone or brick shell which concentrated the heat. The result was usually a beehive oven in the yard. With variations, as in Sumer about 2900 BCE:
Bread (Sumerian, ninda; Akkadian, akalu) must have been made, at least in some cases, from leavened dough. There are no direct descriptions, but allusions to its bulky size and to leaving the dough overnight to rest seem to be indications of fermentation. One may assume, however, that in most cases the bread was made from unleavened dough shaped into flat, round loaves, similar to the present-day Near Eastern khubuz. This bread was baked in a peculiar, ubiquitous type of oven called an öurin (Sumerian) or tinûru (Akkadian). It was a clay implement of cylindrical shape, tapering to a conical form in its upper part and with a side opening at its base. The whole was between 3 and 4 feet high. Once the oven was sufficiently heated, the flat, unleavened loaves were plastered to the side for baking. Salaries of the workers were often paid in bread. Roasted barley was sold in the streets and at the marketplace.
In the middle East there wasn't much push to bring the oven inside. On the wind swept loess of ancient China it was more interesting to have the heat inside the house. Particularly in winter when the well to do built ovens under the sleeping platform , called a 'kang', which made Morpheus so cozy.

Ancient Chinese earthenware tomb model of a stove, from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 - 220 AD), Freer Gallery of Art.
Already from the Chinese Qin Dynasty (221 BC206/207 BC), clay stoves that enclosed the fire completely are known, and a similar design known as kamado (かまど) appeared in the Kofun period (3rd6th century) in Japan. These stoves were fired by wood or charcoal through a hole in the front. In both designs, pots were placed over or hung into holes at the top of the knee-high construction. Raised kamados were developed in Japan during the Edo period (16031867).
So here is the stove: a box in the room which contains fire and surfaces or compartments which may be cooked in or on.
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