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stew hole monticello
Scappi stew stove

The top photo is the stew-stove at Jefferson’s Monticello, 19th century, the illustration is from Scappi, 16th century. In the illustration the stew-stove is placed against the wall on the right and pans sit on the openings.

Today’s post, like yesterday’s, is an exploration of an antiquated cooking term, i.e. a stew-stove or stew-hole. I first took notice of this term while perusing (for the millionth time) Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery”, and decided to investigate the era and frequency in which it was used.

Henry Neumann [1808] defined stew-hole as, “a small stove in a kitchen-hearth on which anything is put to boil or stew”. It was still found in Edward Gray’s dictionary published in 1900. The stew stove or stew hole was in use by the 16th century, sometimes made of brick and clay, and at other times possibly stone and/or tile. The stoves allowed variance in temperature when cooking in multiple pots. They were first an adjunct to the fireplace, then free-standing, and eventually led to the creation of the cast-iron stove.

While some domiciles had multiple stories and multiple hearths, the stew-hole was always in the kitchen, probably the first or lowest floor as evidenced by this remark. “Fire-Hearths. On the kitchen floor, One kitchen grate, fire place, Stew-hole, Hot-hearth”. (1700’s England)

A stew-hole stove was a permanent fixture. It was a raised structure, usually brick, that allowed the cook to stand while preparing food instead of squatting or bending down to an open hearth at floor level. The stoves had openings a pot was set into and they were heated by a fire underneath. The stoves often had grates which the pots sat on and which held the pots steady over the opening. Some stoves had a grate upon which a fire was built, with the ashes falling below while others had hot coals from a larger fire at the bottom moved up to where they were needed under the pots. By the earliest part of the 19th century the openings in the brick stew stove could range in number from one to as many as eight as were used at Monticello.

One notation seems to have referred to a hole with a dirt bottom, possibly constructed much the same way as the bean-hole in America. “Feb. 10, 1844.—A large eel was found to-day in the stew-hole at Bottisham Hall, deeply imbedded in the mud. The weather this month has been very severe.” For the eel to burrow into the mud, the stew-hole had to be open to the ground underneath.

Several 18th century cookery books instruct setting soup or other dishes that needed long slow simmering, “over a slow fire or stew-hole”. Some of the books contained the same recipe, namely Crawfish Soup which called for the use of the stew-hole and it is possible those accounts may be more indicative of the freedom with which writers copied the work of others during that era than of the commonality of the stew-hole in 18th century kitchens.

John Perkins told the cook she could keep soup warm until it was served by setting it over the stew-hole. “…strain it, and toast some bread; cut it in small, lay the bread in your dish, and pour in the soup. If you have a stew-hole, set the dish over it for a minute, and send it to table”.

Boiled fish was another item that was kept warm until it was served by setting them over a stew-hole.

English/French dictionaries use the word potager to mean stove and that term was commonly used in Canada as well as France. (Yes I do know the word also referred to a garden)

Its efficiency while using less fuel was one of the attributes of the stew-stove, but having used such a stove, I can say that the distance between the grate that held the fire or coals and the bottom of the pot determines how effectively the stove performs. That distance was too great in the one I used and it took much too big a fire to get hot enough for cooking.

Sources:
Neumann, Henry. “A New Dictionary of the Spanish and English Languages”. 1808. London.
Cotgrave, Randle. “A French and English Dictionary”. London.
Gray, Edward, Iribas, Juan L. “A New Pronouncing Dictionary of the Spanish and English Languages”. 1852 and 1900 editions. NY.
Glasse, Hannah. “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple”. 1784. London.
Perkins, John. “Every Woman Her Own House-Keeper”. 1796. London.
Farley, John. “The London art of Cookery, and Housekeeper’s Complete Assistant”. 1800. London.
“The Complete Family-Piece; and, Country Gentleman, and Farmer’s Best Guide. 1737. London.
Carter, Susannah. “The Frugal Housewife or Complete Woman Cook”. 1796. London.
“Outing” magazine. Vol. 47. Dec. 1905.
“The Angler’s Guide: Containing Easy Instructions for the Youthful Beginner”. 1828. London.
Carter, Charles. “The London and Country Cook”. 1749. London.
“The Statutes at Large Passed in the Parliaments Held in Ireland, From the Third Year of Edward the Second, A.D. 1310, to the Thirty-eighth Year of George the Third, A.D. 1798, inclusive.” 1798. Dublin.
Jenyns, Leonard. “Observations in Natural History: With an Introduction on Habits of Observing as Connected with the Study of that Science.” 1846. London.
Millars. “Letters from Italy”. Vol. II. 1777. London.

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