We Didn’t Start the Fire: The History of Fire and the Oven
Fire & Oven Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, delves into the history of when humans first started using fire for cooking, and how our ancestors progressed to cooking in ovens. From cooking using flames from naturally occurring phenomena, to other sources of heat, and from inventing primitive earth ovens, to closed ovens, to portable ovens, and to the modern ovens we use today, the history of cooking with fire and the invention of the oven is littered with so many innovative and fascinating people. So, make sure to tune in.
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EAT MY GLOBE PODCAST
WE DIDN’T START THE FIRE:
THE HISTORY OF FIRE AND THE OVEN
How do you turn a duck in to a soul singer?
I don’t know Simon. How do you turn a duck into a soul singer?
You put it in the oven until it’s Bill Withers.
Oh my gawd.
Right. Let’s carry on shall we.
I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to a brand-new episode of Eat My Globe a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And on today’s episode, we are going to be looking at fire and the oven that is beholden upon it.
Well, we all know what fire is. But how people began to control it and use it for cooking is a different matter.
We’re also going to look at how the oven is an appliance that has been with us for so long that people often forget what it is and how it works. And no, and your oven is not just some storage place for your extra pots and pans.
So, as always on Eat My Globe, why don’t we begin with a few definitions and guidelines to help us to be sure what it is we are looking at.
Let’s talk about the fire first. With archeological and scientific research ever moving forward, we still struggle to find a true answer, but let’s see.
In Encyclopedia Britannica, we have as good a definition as to what fire is, which is a:
“rapid burning of combustible material with the evolution of heat and usually accompanied by flame.”
But, quite how all of this began to be connected with cooking means that we should look at how humans and their forbearers began using fire at all.
There is precious little evidence about how hominids started to control fire so they could use it for cooking.
Harvard anthropologist, Richard Wrangham, claimed in his book, “Catching Fire,” that 1,800,000 years ago, our hominid ancestors mastered fire, which then allowed us to be the humans we are today. He argued that fire provided cooked proteins to our diet, which were essential to the development of the brain. However, a number of archeologists disputed Wrangham’s claim that our ancestors were able to control fire and were able to use it for cooking 1.8 million years ago.
Instead, archeologists claimed that it was around 780,000 years ago when humans started cooking with fire. Scientists and archeologists discovered the remnants of a large carp that date back to that time. They believed that the fish had been treated with fire when it was baked at 500 degrees Celsius or 932 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wow, now that is hot.
They found the blackened fish in what is now Israel. And they believed it to have been the earliest discovery of cooking animals over fire.
Other theories abound as to when our ancestors started cooking with fire. Some archeologists concluded that humans started using fire closer to 400,000 years ago.
And, in some cases, some scientists claimed that our ancestors only began to control fire for cooking around 12,000 years ago.
Much of this uncertainty of pinpointing when our ancestors started cooking came down to determining how they created fire rather than how they used it when it naturally occurred. Scientists found it hard to determine whether our ancestors used fire from naturally occurring sources – such as via lightning strikes or lava flow from volcanoes – or whether they used fire that they kept alive from those naturally occurring sources, or whether they deliberately created the fire. Indeed, the mummified remains of an Iceman whom scientists have named Otzi and who they think lived 5,300 years ago, apparently carried fire with him by storing embers wrapped in leaves and then kept in a box. But, he also carried flint which he may have used to start a fire. So, who knows?
For those who theorized that our ancestors controlled fire around 1 million years ago, they claimed that our Homo Erectus forbearers in Africa first started to recreate the flames they saw from lightning strikes and the like. And by around 70,000 BCE, people had begun to create lamps. In the Middle East, the earliest producer of a lamp was in the form of a sea shell.
Around 7,000 BCE, our Neolithic forebears used flint to cause friction that would create a spark. The sort of thing we might still do today when camping – not, I should say, that I ever go camping.
There is an argument that fire cooking first developed accidentally – perhaps when a natural occurring fire burnt an animal. Author Guy Crosby theorizes that the enticing smell of cooking meat prompted our ancestors to keep doing it again and again. Honestly, I don’t blame them. Just imagine the smell of bacon and you will probably want that again and again. Bacon. Ooh.
And that leads us to tasting food. As Guy Crosby puts in his book “Cook, Taste, Learn: How the Evolution of Science Transformed the World of Cooking”
“We now have evidence that humans detect six basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umami and salt.”
Whatever basic tastes are ancestors experienced, by the time we get to the era of the first civilizations in Mesopotamia – which was the ancient area located in what is now Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria and which dates back to around 14,000 to 10,000 BCE – fire was now an important part of their life.
Nusku, for example, was a Mesopotamian god of fire. His presence dispels the creatures of the darkness and is welcomed to the world by the use of a lamp.
Our ancestors first began to cook in “earth ovens” around 30,000 years ago. These were pits dug into the ground and would have had heated stones as a heat source. The food was then wrapped in leaves and then covered with soil while the meat roasted slowly. That sounds good to me. It sounds to me like this technique lives on through things like Hawaiian Luau or Mexican Barbacoa. Rightly because they are so gooooood.
A version of this “earth oven” we now know as tandoor oven has been in use for at least 5,000 years. A tandoor is essentially an oven made from clay that is shaped like a big vase. After digging a pit, it is placed into the ground and heated with charcoal. They have been used in ancient Persia – where they are thought to have originated – and also used in India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Georgia, Somalia, and other places. Archaeologists did find ruins of a tandoor oven in Rajasthan in India that dates back to around 2,600 BCE. Nowadays, tandoor ovens are still used, but mostly they are now found above ground. In addition to cooking breads, people could use the tandoor ovens to cook kebabs, tikkas and other dishes.
Aaah. Gosh, you can tell I’m Indian, can’t you? I’m having this. . . oh. Anyway.
By around 2,500 BCE, the ancient Mesopotamians have been using fired brick ovens.
So, before we go on, why don’t we define what is an oven?
Our friends at Merriam-Webster tells us that the oven is
“a chamber used for baking, heating, or drying.”
Whereas, the Oxford Dictionary calls it
“the part of a cooker that is like a box with a door on the front, in which food is cooked or heated.”
These definitions definitely applied to what the ancient peoples used.
And just in case anyone is wondering what a “stove” is used for, The Britannica Dictionary describes that as
“a flat piece of kitchen equipment for cooking that usually has four devices (called burners) which become hot when they are turned on and that often is attached to an oven.”
So, for this episode, we’re going to focus on the “oven.”
For example, ancient Egyptians have been credited with inventing the first closed oven in around 3000 BCE. These ovens were conical shaped made from Nile brick. They used these ovens to bake bread, which was one of the key pillars of the Egyptian diet. Having the oven closed allowed them to create not just flatbread, which had been around for a while, but also leavened bread. In the top area was the oven where the dough was to be placed and in the bottom of the oven was where the fire was kept going. Apparently, for their heat source, they used charcoal or dried manure.
Other ancient cultures too had developed ovens. Ancient Greeks have been credited with creating front-loaded and portable ovens. Their portable ovens were called, “ipnos.” In addition to ipnos, they also used what author Robert I. Curtis described as a quote, “barrel cooker,” end quote oven, that was still portable but bigger and had an opening on top that would allow a cook to stick dough to the insides of the wall of the oven to bake the bread. But they didn’t just use their ovens to make bread – they made cakes, pies, pastries and more.
The ancient Greek writer named, Athenaeus, wrote a book called, “Deipnosophists or Banquet of the Learned,” which discussed many aspects of ancient Greek life in the form of an intellectual conversation between people over the course of a meal. In his book, he celebrates bread from Athens being cooked in ovens:
“Seeing these fair-complexion’d wheaten loaves
Filling the oven in such quick succession,
And seeing them, devise fresh forms from moulds. . . .”
But ancient ovens did not just cook breads. He also discussed the meats cooked in ovens:
“But above all I do delight in dishes
Of paunches and of tripe from gelded beasts,
And love a fragrant pig within the oven.”
Oh yes, I do love cooking pig in the oven too.
Similarly, in ancient Rome, they also used portable ovens. One of these portable ovens is called “testum” or “clibanus,” which were like earthenware domes used to cover food that were placed on the hearth while the dome was covered in hot embers. This method of cooking sounds to me like something similar to the Izpod Peke or “Under the Iron Bell” cooking I have encountered in Croatia where meat – oh – and potatoes were slowly cooked together under an iron dome that had been covered in hot embers. Just the thought of that – oh – tender, juicy beef or lamb is making my mouth water. By the way, this method of cooking in Croatia is not a surprise as it was part of the expansive Roman Empire.
Ancient Romans also used ovens in the shape of a beehive. They would burn wood or coals inside to heat the oven, and once it was hot enough, they would remove the ashes, put the food inside and cover the door. In the ruins of ancient Pompeii, archaeologists found 81 loaves of bread in an oven located inside a place they now call the Bakery of Modestus, which scientists theorize was abruptly left there as Mount Vesuvius erupted.
In China, in the 13th century, the oven figured prominently in the cooking of its renowned dish – Peking Duck. During that time, they were cooked in a sealed oven called, “menlu,” which according to Beijing chef Ai Guangfu
“‘was a square, brickbuilt oven with a door on every side. . . . The chefs would build a fire in the middle, and when it had burnt down to smouldering embers, they’d hang four ducks inside each opening, shut the oven doors and then open them about an hour later, once all the ducks were roasted.’”
Oh, I would love to have eaten that. I really would. Oh. Okay, I’m getting real hungry right now.
In Europe in the Middle Ages or Medieval Period, which started around the year 500 and ended around 1500, ovens were not commonly found in homes but were usually found in professional bakeries. According to Ruth A. Johnston in her book, “All Things Medieval: An Encyclopedia of the Medieval World,”
“The medieval oven was heated by lighting a fire inside the main chamber. Once the oven walls were hot, the coals and ashes were raked out, and pies or lumps of bread were placed in the oven. The basic oven utensil was a wooden tool with a long handle and a flat surface for lifting and sliding the food in the oven.”
This medieval oven before the 13th century was typically built in the edge of town by a body of water like a river or lake just in case it was to catch fire.
By the mid-18th century, wealthy families began incorporating ovens heated by charcoal or wood in their homes, and an oven known as an “iron oven” or “perpetual oven” was apparently first installed in Shibden Hall in Halifax in England.
“It is called a perpetual oven, because the operation of baking may be continued for any length of time uninterruptedly.”
Which brings us to a gentleman we have previously talked about on our episode on the history of Sous Vide – Count von Rumford, previously known as Benjamin Thompson. Now as you may recall, he was an American-born physicist who lived in Rumford, which is now Concord, New Hampshire. He fled to Britain during the American Revolution and was later knighted by King George III. As we discussed in our Sous Vide episode, he invented a soup, as well as a double boiler and a drip coffee pot. And, for the purposes of this episode, in the 1790s, he invented a type of kitchen range with an oven. The fire in this kitchen range was sealed in its own chamber and the heat then passed through the walls of the range to the ovens and the stove. Rumford describes his roasting oven as made of cast iron. He also said of his roasting oven:
“I think it bids fair to become a most useful implement of cookery. As an oven, it certainly has one advantage over all ovens constructed on the common principles, which must give it a decided superiority. By means of the air-chamber and the steam-tube it may be kept clear of all ill-scented and noxious fumes without the admission of cold air. ”
So, it looks like Rumford’s oven allowed people to cook without their food smelling like a chimney. While Rumford was a prolific inventor, he never actually patented any of his creations. He supposedly said,
“I desire only that the whole world should profit by it, without preventing others from using it with equal freedom.”
So, thank you, Count Rumford.
Another development in the history of ovens came in the early part of the 17th century. In his book, “Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth century,” Wolfgang Schivelbusch says that
“It had been known since the seventeenth century at least that distilling coal or wood produces an inflammable gas. The first description of this phenomenon appears in a letter written by John Clayton, an amateur chemist, to Robert Boyle before 1691, although it was not published until 1739 in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.”
This, of course, was the beginning of the gas age.
John Clayton once said
“I observed that the spirit which issued out, caught fire at the flame of the candle, and continued burning with violence as it issued out in a stream, which I blew out and lighted again alternately for several times.”
In 1792, a Scotsman and inventor by the name of William Murdoch began to furnish his home with gas pipes, which lit his lamps. There was no network of gas at this time, but the era of gas had begun and by the end of the 18th century, Birmingham had the first lamps in England. And by the early 1800s, gas lights would be in London, England to Paris, France to Baltimore, Maryland.
In 1802, a Moravian chemist named Zächaus Andreas Winzler used gas for cooking. Apparently, Winzler hosted dinner parties at his home in Austria where he had created a gas stove with an oven. But, unfortunately, gas cooking would not become commonplace immediately.
It was not until 1826 when a British scientist called James Sharp created his own personal gas stove and began selling it in 1828. And our friend, Chef Alexis Soyer, who is arguably one of the world’s first celebrity chefs and who we talked about quite a bit in the Eat My Globe episode on Chef Escoffier – well, he was one of the first to champion gas cooking. Chef Soyer often spoke about the benefits of gas cooking. He said of gas cooking,
“You obtain the same heat as from charcoal the moment it is lit, it is a fire that never requires making up, is free from carbonic acid which is so pernicious, especially in small kitchens, and creates neither dust nor smell (except when gas should neglectfully be not properly turned off).”
He also used large open air gas ovens at his public cooking events.
In the meantime, in 1833, Jordan Mott began with his own design of the coal fired oven. This was the first of its type too and was known as the baseburner because it had a ventilation system. And, indeed, in 1848, he received a silver medal from the Annual Fair of the American Institute for, quote, “the best cooking stove with tubular oven, an improvement in the coal grate.”End quote.
While coal powered ovens continued to be developed, gas powered ovens would soon become more popular. In England, by the 1880s, gas cooking was beginning to take over. And in the US, gas cooking would be the predominant method by the 1920s. That’s because early American ovens attached to stoves and using coal and wood as heat sources were difficult to control. For example, according to “The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink,”
“To determine the heat levels, cooks held a hand in the oven for as long as tolerable and judged the temperature by time. (Some authorities recommended thirty-five to forty-five seconds as the time indicative of a ‘moderate’ oven.) This system was highly individual, because it depended on the peculiarities of the oven itself and the heat tolerance of the cook.”
In 1929, Swedish Nobel Prize winner in physics, Nils Gustaf Dalén, invented a stove that kept heat in an insulated chamber and which became known as the Aktiebolaget Gas Accumulator stove or AGA– named after the company of the same name where he was a Managing Director. Dalén was a fascinating fellow. A prolific inventor, he was conducting some experiments when an explosion blinded him. However, despite losing his ability to see, he continued to invent many items, including the AGA stove. Apparently, the inspiration for the stove hit him when his wife was having trouble maintaining the temperature of her wood-fueled stove. So, he started working on inventing this stove. The AGA stove, which included an oven for roasting and an oven for simmering, was first fueled by wood or coal, and then later, with oil. Today, fuel options include gas, and electricity — but we will get to electricity in a little bit. The AGA stove became something that only those in the “well off” group really have including the singer, Paul McCartney; the Great British Bake Off judge, Mary Berry; French actor, Gerard Depardieu; former British Prime Minister David Cameron; and former Prince, now King, Charles. I’ve actually managed to cooked on one quite a few times myself. It could cost you £11,775 or more. But apparently, they have longevity as one model was found still to be functioning after 77 years.
As we can see, ovens have really followed the way that society has progressed. First, moss to feed a fire, then wood to feed an oven, then coals, gas and now, we move on to electric.
In 1892, a Canadian executive, Thomas Ahearn, patented
“An oven having in its hearth enclosed pits in which electric heaters are placed.”
His work produced many Canadian patents, of which one was the electric oven. In the same month he received his patent, he famously hosted a meal for 100 guests at Ottawa’s Windsor Hotel where all the 30 dishes were prepared using his electric oven and other electric appliances.His electric oven – which apparently had a large capacity – roasted 21 lbs. of beef, 13 lbs. of veal and 3 large turkeys – all at the same time. These dishes were: Sirloin of Beef and Horseradish – oh, I’m getting hungry now – Turkey with Cranberry Sauce; and Stuffed Loin of Veal with Lemon Sauce.
The Sirloin of Beef, I have to say, that’s probably my favorite.
The meal was such a success that he was able to sell his oven to the hotel’s kitchen. But this success did not translate to sales for home usage. Ahearn’s electric oven didn’t really sell because, well, it was too big for the home – remember, it could cook a lot of meat in one go – and, more importantly, most homes and businesses at the time did not have electricity. Which, seems to think, it would be a bit of a condition. Indeed, as of 1907, electricity was expensive and also, just 8% of homes in the US had electricity. And even by 1920, cooking with electricity was still uncommon.
It was not until the 1940s – when 80% of American homes had access to electricity – did electric ovens become popular. And by the 1950s, electric ovens were finally competitive with gas ovens.
Since then, there have been even more developments.
First, is the “Microwave” oven. Now, I have done an episode on the history of the Microwave earlier on Eat My Globe so do go and check that out there.
Secondly, is the “Convection” oven, which is a fan operated form of oven that allows the air to be pushed around the oven to allow roasts and baking to cook more quickly.
Third, is the “Air Fryer,” which is in fact a “convection” oven. It works by the operation of RUSH or R U S H, which stands for, “Radiant Up Stream Heating,” which is where intense hot air is created by radiation from a heating element at the top of the machine and that hot air is then quickly pushed around by a fan to where the food is. This kind of creates a frying effect. I have to say that I have one of these at home and it is very, very useful when I am cooking for one or two of us.
And the fourth is the “Smart” oven. This is a countertop oven that will do many types of cooking including air frying, steaming, etc. I have had a “Smart” oven for four or so years and, in cooking for me and Sybil, I have never needed to turn my big oven on since. I know this sounds like a commercial, doesn’t it? I’m not getting paid for it. The truth is, for two of us, it will bake, Air Fry, roast, toast, etc. So, for those people, it’s definitely worth getting.
Now, I hope this has made you aware how you turn your oven on. It has a fantastic history from the discovery of fire, through the Neanderthals, through the ancient peoples of Central Asia, South Asia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and China, through Medieval Europe, through Count Rumford and Nobel Prize winners, many industrialists, and right up to the present day.
All this so you can make great food.
Right now, talking about all that food has now inspired me to turn on my smart oven and roast me some chicken.
So, cheers, everybody. We will see you again next time.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions.”
We would also like to thank Sybil Villaneuva for all of her help both with the editing of the transcripts and her essential help with the research.
Publication Date: November 6, 2023