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Friday, January 20, 2017

The Best Kitchen Gadget of the 1600s Was a Small, Short-Legged Dog

In the hot, smoky kitchens of 17th-century Europe, you’d find a lot of things you’d never see in kitchens today; a large open fire, an iron roasting spit, and a giant hamster wheel-like contraption holding a small, live, constantly running dog referred to as a turnspit dog (wiki).

For hundreds of years the now-extinct turnspit dog, also called Canis Vertigus (“dizzy dog”), vernepator cur, kitchen dog and turn-tyke, was specially bred just to turn a roasting mechanism for meat. And weirdly, this animal was a high-tech fixture for the professional and home cook from the 16th century until the mid-1800s.

An illustration of a turnspit dog, described in the 19th century
 as “long-bodied, crooked-legged, and ugly dogs”.
Hunks of meat were either boiled or roasted over an open fire; the latter was not only considered most delicious, but in the UK, a hallmark of proper cooking.

Unfortunately, fire was tricky to control - you couldn’t leave, say, a goose on the flame without risking an unevenly cooked dinner. To cook meat thoroughly, kitchen staff stabbed each piece with the heavy iron spike of a roasting spit, which rotated via a looped chain and hand crank. Cooking meat thoroughly on a spit takes anywhere between 40 and 80 minutes per kilo depending on which meat it is you’re cooking. Needless to say, roasting an adult hog on the fire took an incredibly long time.

Whiskey, a stuffed turnspit dog at Abergavenny Museum
Before dogs were employed, the fireplace spit was turned by the lowliest person in the kitchen staff, usually a small boy who stood behind a bale of wet hay for protection from the heat, turning the iron spit for hours and hours. although in larger households the size of the spit necessitated delegating the job to an adult. 

The job was tough, cruel and often resulted in the poor soul tasked with doing it suffering from burns, blisters and exhaustion. What made the job more difficult  was that the spitjacks, as the adults were known, had to work in full uniform. During the 16th century they made the transition from small boys and adults to dogs.  

Turnspits were ultimately replaced by steam-powered machines and by the end of the 19th century the breed officially was declared extinct.

Despite the fact that,  for a few centuries, the turnspit could be found in almost every large home in England, including the homes of royalty, nobody anywhere bothered to note down exactly what breeding process went into creating the dog that had ensured so many people had evenly cooked dinners. All we have to go on are historical descriptions of the breed which described it as “long-bodied”, “crooked-legged” and “ugly”. There's also a stuffed specimen called Whiskey (picture above).

By the way, the horrific treatment turnspits were subjected to is reportedly what inspired Henry Bergh to start the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which in turn has resulted in countless animals being saved from abuse and cruelty.

More on turnspit dogs at Atlas Obscura, Today I Found Out, Modern Farmer and NPR.

A related post on more recent gadgets: Alton Brown's critique of Amazon's dumbest kitchen gadgets, with bonus Amazon reviews.

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