Tuesday, March 18, 2014

From Fire to Hearth: Mystery Artifact Revealed!

The most recent mystery artifact stumped blog-followers, visitors, and Forest Preserve Staff!  The above artifact is cast iron, measures 2 feet long, and balances (rather precariously) on the square foot.  Some followers suggested it might be a warmer for beds or boots, which was not far off the mark.  Other good guesses included "tool to rest the frying pan on for heating" and "toddy iron" - both of which were quite close indeed to this tool's function!

The gold star for Most Imaginative Guess once again goes to Jess C., for a description that might have come straight from the pages of a Terry Pratchett novel:
"This item is used for the game of Conkerwhip.  A single chestnut is placed in the loop and roasted near an open fire.  When the chestnut is ready, one teammate (the catcher) stands some distance away, and the other teammate (the whipper) strikes the flat end of the device, sending the chestnut flying toward the catcher, whom must try to catch it in his mouth.  Scoring is based on distance and successful catches.  This game is best played outdoors on a cold day, which not only allows for a larger playing field, but also gives the hot chestnut time to cool somewhat as it flies through the air.  Chestnuts may be partially pre-cooked in order to keep the game moving."

Having read that description, I'm afraid this object's function will seem mundane by comparison!  This artifact is a salamander, and -- like its modern-day culinary counterpart -- it was used for  toasting or browning the top of a dish before serving. Many commercial kitchens use salamander broilers for melting and browning cheesy dishes and caramelizing desserts (think creme brulee).

 zpic salamander

The historic salamander could be placed on the hearth near the fire, and when the iron disk was heated, it was then held over the dish to brown or toast the top layer.

While the modern salamander grill does not look much like its namesake, the historic salamander tool seen above does resemble the amphibian seen below:

The tool's name might also refer to the salamander's mythical association with fire.  Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and author, referred to the creature's ability to extinguish flames (although he was himself skeptical of such a claim).  Despite Pliny's doubts, the legendary ability of a salamander to live within fire was documented through the ages, and documents suggest the Chinese produced a fabric that was rumored to be woven from "salamander wool" and had flame retardant properties (although textile experts believe it to have been woven from asbestos).  These beliefs were likely supported by real salamanders' tendency to live in fallen logs, from which they would emerge as the log was thrown onto the fire.  It must have seemed as though the creatures had emerged from the flames themselves!

16th-century illustration of
a salamander in flames

No comments:

Post a Comment