Chafing Dish Myths & Legends

My friend Don Lindgren from Rabelais – Fine Books on Food & Drink made an offhanded comment in conversation about why chaffing dishes and their attendent cookbooks were so popular from about 1880s – 1920s or so.  Basically the US population had begun migrating from central family structures into the cities where the college dorms, rooming houses and hotel rooms didn’t have kitchens.  And at that point I smacked my head because I didn’t SEE that trend, it’s so obvious.

Chaffing Dish cooking was so popular, there were Chaffing Dish Dining Clubs, where folks would get together late at night and feast and drink of course.

Finding that Sternau brand Sterno stove sent me down a research rabbit hole.. S. Sternau were the kings of all things alcohol stove, chafing dishes, samovars, coffee pots and kettles.  That’s when I realized the massive difference between chafing dishes for COOKING and modern chafing dishes for food warming and that 99% of the people trying to sell vintage chafing dishes have no idea how the things actually worked.

Usually made of silver plated, aluminum or copper with wooden, stag horn or even bakelite handles.   The heating sources are alcohol burners or lamps (some use canned heat), above which is a stand, which holds the hot water pan and above that is the cooking vessel and it’s cover. Many of the chafing dishes for sale (cause of course I WANT one now) are missing either the water pan or the dish and almost always the lamp/burner.  It’s the water pan that distributes the heat evenly under the cooking vessel, to avoid scorching the food.  That is the similarity to modern banquet/restaurant chafing dishes. Without that it is just a hot plate.

Being the busy body that I am, I contacted the FOUR people online who are offering one of these alcohol flagons for sale and told them that is NOT for dispensing kerosene (godforbid!) or oil of any type.  

I must confess of the thousands of cookbooks I have read in my life, I have never spent any time with chafing dish cookbooks.  In my mind I had imagined they were only for entertaining and would have nothing to offer me.  I have had a fascination with small batch cooking for the last 35 years, always trolling for new cooking methods for the solo cook.  And with another SMACK TO THE HEAD I found that chafing dish recipes revolve around small batches because they are limited to the size of the cooking pan.  So except for appetizers most of the recipes suit one or two servings.  

There are tons of chafing dish cookbooks from that era that can be downloaded.  Including one from THE woman herself Fannie Merrit Farmer produced Chafing Dish Possibilities in 1898.  Here it is at   Common in chafing dish cooking are eggs, seafood, very thin cutlets, cream sauces, fudges and other desserts, things that do well with low temperature cooking and don’t waste a lot of fuel.   What we would call everyday scrambled eggs with some bits added in, were once labeled with  Eggs a la Fionese, Eggs a la Suisse, Eggs au buerre noir, Eggs a la Creole, Eggs a La Caracas and so forth. One can imagine picnicing on an oriental rug in dorm room, with a few eggs, a can of anchovies, some  stinky cheese and stale toast to put it all on.  What a feast!

Now I just need to find one with all the parts to have my own midnight feasts.