The hay box, or slow-cooking avant la lettre

Changes in the cultural significance and practical use of our kitchen technology, 1900-2015

Jon Verriet

This paper focuses on the hay box, an insulation cooker that found its way to the Netherlands at the end of the nineteenth century. A pot would be brought to the boiling point, then immediately placed in this chest, where it lost its heat very slowly, thereby gently cooking the food within. Over the course of the last century the device has been popularised and forgotten – then rediscovered. Now, this ‘fireless cooker’ is a commercial success, often sold for more than 50 euros.
The renewed interest in this antique kitchen technology raises the question: how and why does our cooking technology change over time, in both its meaning and its use? Using historical magazines and newspapers ‐ among which the journal of the Dutch school for household education, In en Om de Keuken [‘In and Around the Kitchen’] ‐ this paper tracks the historical representation of the hay box. The writings of these historical mediators are then contrasted with the efforts of their contemporary counterparts, featuring both current newspapers and specific forms of online journalism. A clear parallel between the two periods is found. Although prewar commentators put more emphasis on saving money than on saving the planet, a concern with discouraging waste ‐ a moral component to the appreciation of the hay box ‐ seems to have survived its decades‐long dip in popularity. However great disparities between the two examined periods stand out, concerning target audiences, cultural significance, and intended use. The money-saving device of a century ago has been reinvented as a fashionable, eco-friendly product. It has left the privacy of the kitchen, to be deployed during holidays and potluck barbecues. Moreover, advances in food hygiene and refrigeration have broadened its potential use from simple staple foods to raw meats. Hence a familiar cooking device is given new meaning. In the context of the 21st century, the hay box is not a new physical invention but a cultural invention.
The paper concludes that when it comes to our kitchen technologies, a sophisticated interaction between historical context and physical attributes facilitates the change of their cultural significance, and can potentially alter the way devices are used.