Course:HIST104/The Dutch-Oven

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Topics In World History
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HIST 104
Section: 98A
Instructor: Joy Dixon
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An example of food being presented in a classic Dutch-Oven style pot

Introduction

As time progresses and history is actively formed, the everyday objects that survive the years are adapted to suit changing cultures and needs. Items that are seldom thought about are constantly changing as they proliferate across cultures, countries and time periods. This occurrence can be observed in the so-called `Dutch Oven`, a basic cooking pot that has been in use for centuries. By tracing its evolution throughout history one can see how cultures shape an item, and vice versa. The material it's constructed from is a result of the available resources in a country and the food being cooked, while the shape is often a result of cultural cuisine and user requirements. For example, when pilgrims needed a versatile and durable pot, the cast iron Dutch oven gained popularity. Throughout time the general shape and uses of a Dutch oven were fundamentally the same, but the details were tied to a broader context. You can see that even something as seemingly insignificant as the Dutch oven is tied to human interactions with each other and their world, and that every part of life down to the pots people cook with are a product of culture and time.

The History of Cast Iron and its Spread to Europe

An important material that affected the spread of the Dutch oven throughout cultures was cast Iron. Cast Iron provided the world with a cheap and durable version of the pot, making it accessible and long lasting for those who could not afford the more ornate versions. Cast iron first originated in China in 513 BC (China in World History, S. A. M. Adshead, 2016, pg 40) and was traded throughout Asia and slowly spread into Persia and then Europe. (History Alive!, Wendy Frey, 2004, pg 237). Even though cast iron was an early feature in the Chinese trade, it was not used in Europe until the middle ages where it was first seen in Dillenburg Castle in Germany in the form of water pipes in 1455 (Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution, Bruce T. Moran, Harvard University Press 2009, pg 39.). Once the process for creating cast iron became known, the metal spread across Europe, boosting the quality and strength of many goods that were already in existence. One of these goods was the Dutch oven which had previously been made of various softer metals and ceramics. This advancement allowed for the widespread use of the oven and facilitated its spread to the Americas.

The Proliferation and Adaption of the Dutch Oven Throughout Cultures and Time

Experimenting with various methods of food preparation has been an integral part of human development and domestication. The use of pots has been studied extensively going back thousands of years to the birth of pottery, with some forms of pots being discovered in Russia as early as 14,000 BC (Derevianko et al., 2004). The Dutch oven is a culmination and continuation of that rich history, and can be traced back as far as the seventeenth century when it was depicted in the painting “Skillet and Game” by Harmen Van Steenwyrk (The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (1 ed.)). Soon it became a recognized piece of culinary equipment and the oven moved across cultures in Europe as various peoples developed it to suit their needs.

The Dutch oven’s many forms often shared the similar shape and function across cultures. It was in the details that it differentiated itself as a varying tool that served diverse times and cultures. The changes to the oven included different materials, a slightly varying shape to suit different types and sizes of food, as well as adjustments to optimize the pot for the preferred cooking method. How wealthy the owner was often determined the material the oven was comprised. Wealthier families opted for more resilient metals, such as copper, that conducted heat to cook the food more effectively. The consideration of the shape of the pan would primarily be determined by how it was intended to be used. For example, some of the French pans were shallow and used to cook tarts, while English versions that were made to cook stews had a deeper, rounded basin (The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (1 ed.)). Cooking methods also influenced shape and design. If the user was going to be cooking with coals, the ovens often had high rimmed lids to allow for coals to be placed on top, while those that were to be placed over fires may have handles built in. Later versions discarded these features and opted instead to have a flat bottom and features that would favor the flat, heated cooktop used in modern kitchens.

The details discussed above are not arbitrary or ornate. They are distinct markings of the needs of the individual, and in a broader sense the culture. They also connect to the environment that they came from, and when connected draw a timeline that follows and represents the evolution of the cultures that used the Dutch oven.

A cast iron Dutch-Oven being heated over a fire.

The Dutch Oven and the Americas – Use by the Pilgrims, Indigenous Groups, and Beyond

The usefulness of the Dutch oven was not limited to day to day life in Europe. Its versatility proved to be valuable for the American pilgrims as well. As is noted by the Encyclopedia of Kitchen History, the Dutch oven came to the New World with the Mayflower in 1620 (Encyclopedia of Kitchen History, 2004). During that voyage space was limited and the need to reduce items being transported was apparent. As a result, the Dutch oven was chosen over other cookware. It afforded the pilgrims the ability to cook a variety of food, and was a durable and relatively compact item. This simple consideration of space and convenience allowed the Dutch oven to move across yet another culture and become tied with American history.

Once the oven made its way to the Americas, its usefulness found it a lasting spot in the culture. During exploration of aboriginal settlements, cast iron pot fragments have been found, documenting yet another time that the Dutch oven diffused through cultures (Sutton & Ritter, 1987). It had spread beyond the European settlers as the aboriginal population acquired the ovens through their trade with the Europeans. Similar to its early narrative in Europe, the Dutch oven in America was being adopted and modified by each population it came in contact with to suit their needs.

Another method of cooking with a Dutch-Oven that places the pot directly in the fire.

The oven continued to be used in the Americas, and can be found in stores even to this day. The current versions span much of the cultural spectrum discussed in this essay, being made as fire top cookers from companies such as Lodge, all the way to the luxury cooking items produced by companies like Le Creuset and everything in between.

The Modern Dutch Oven: A Culmination of Cultural Influence

A Modern Dutch-Oven Style Pot

Globalized exchange and information of goods have allowed for the spread to many different areas of ovens that were previously limited to use within their origin culture. As a result, modern Dutch ovens come in many forms and still maintain many features of the ovens of the past. Variations of the Dutch ovens can be found in households all over the world. For example in South African cooking three legged pots, known as potje, are used for stew, while in the Netherlands, as a casserole pot called a braadpan. They are an ingrained part of American culture as well, being used for cooking by boy scouts of America (and the official boy scouts Dutch oven is sold through Bass Pro Shops for general use) due to their ease of use and portability. The global exchange of information allowed by modern communication methods, especially the internet, means that these pots are not limited to the country of their cultural origin. Recipes from all over the world are exchanged over the internet constantly, and the pots are used and sold worldwide. Organizations such as the Lone Star Dutch oven Society and the International Dutch Oven Society are another good example of how the Dutch oven has followed the trend of interacting cultures. These organizations, with chapters spreading across the globe, share and exchange ideas, recipes, and ovens. This attitude of exchange is one that permeates society today, and shows the Dutch ovens links to society as a whole.

As the world has entered into a time period of unprecedented cultural exchange, the Dutch oven has followed these trends. Through Dutch oven societies and the different ovens available throughout the world, it has become a part of the way that information and ideas are exchanged in the 21st century. Culture has become a global rather than regional phenomenon, and the differences in the way the Dutch oven is used once again reflects those changes. Even as culture changes rapidly and technology advances at rates never seen before, the Dutch oven continues to connect human interactions with each other and their world.

References

Bruce T. Moran, “Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution,” Harvard University Press 2009: pg 39.

Derevianko A.P., Kuzmin Y.V., Burr G.S., Jull A.J.T., “AMS 14C Age Of The Earliest Pottery From The Russian Far East; 1996-2002.'”, Kim J.C. Nuclear Instruments And Methods In Physics Research. B223-224 (2004) 735-739.

S. A. M. Adshead, China in World History, (2016): pg 40.

Smith, A. F., & Oxford Reference Library. (2013). The oxford encyclopedia of food and drink in america (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Snodgrass, M. E. (2004). Encyclopedia of kitchen history. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn.

Sutton, M. Q., & Ritter, E. W. (1987). TWO CAST-IRON POTS FROM ABORIGINAL CONTEXTS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. Journal Of California & Great Basin Anthropology, 9(2), 289-292.

Wendy Frey, History Alive!, (2004): pg 237.