Foodie Friday: The Fireless Cooker

Fireless cooker diagram from a 1916 NC Extension publication

Fireless cooker diagram from a 1916 NC Extension publication

In the 1910s and 1920s, North Carolina home demonstration agents promoted use of the "fireless cooker" among rural women.  The fireless cooker might be described as an early slow-cooker (it did cook food over a period of several hours), but the heat source was not electrical.  Rather, a hot soapstone (presumably heated in an oven) was placed in the fireless cooker, and then partially cooked food was placed in a compartment immediately above or adjacent.  A tight-fitting lid was fastened over all, and the insulation within the cooker concentrated the heat and kept if from dissipating too quickly so that the food would continue to cook.  (Some cookers also had asbestos liners!)

It does not appear that fireless cookers were commercially available; households had to construct them.  The 1916 Plans for Community Club Work in the Study of Foods and Household Conveniences (Extension Circular No. 7) contained instructions, diagrams, and photographs for making fireless cookers small and large, inexpensive and "more expensive."  These plans may have relied on the U.S. Department of Agriculture publication Homemade Fireless Cookers and Their Uses (Farmers' Bulletin 771).

Fireless cooker photo from a 1916 NC Extension publication
Instructions for making this fireless cooker appeared in a 1916 NC Extension publication

The USDA publication has extensive description of foods that could be cooked in the fireless cooker, but North Carolina Extension publications indicate it was best used for cooking cereals.  Oatmeal recipes were repeated in several.  The 1924 Ten Lessons in Food Preparation and Meal Planning (Extension Circular No. 139) has this basic recipe:

6 c. water
2 t. salt
2 c. oatmeal

Add oatmeal gradually to boiling salted water; cook rapidly for 10 minutes, stirring constantly.  Place in fireless cooker overnight.  Re-heat by placing cooker pan in a pan of hot water over the fire.

The 26 April 1919 issue of Extension Farm-News had this recipe for "Hungarian Goulash":  

1 1/2 lbs. meat (round steak), 1/2-in. thick,
1 pt. tomatoes.
3 or 4 onions, medium.
1 bunch carrots.

Cook steak as for pot roast, searing on both sides.  Add water (about 1 cup) and place in fireless [cooker].  Cook vegetables and put them through sieve, making a sauce.  Pour over meat just before serving.

Goulash reciped from Extension Farm-News, 26 Apr. 1919
Goulash recipe from Extension Farm-News, 26 Apr. 1919

Extension agents frequently gave demonstrations of the fireless cooker, and the Extension Service (as in the 22 Feb. 1919 Extension Farm-News) recommended that home demonstration clubs discuss methods for housewives to get the most out of the appliance.

By today's standards, it seems that so much preparation went into using the fireless cooker that one wonders what possible benefits it had.  Nonetheless, the 1953 publication Agricultural Extension Work: A Brief History (Extension Circular No. 377), claimed the fireless cooker was "one of the first labor saving devices that gained wide popularity" and that "in the course of two or three years thousands upon thousands of homemade fireless cookers were in use on Southern farms."  It went on to state that "it relieved the housewife of hours of labor over a hot stove, and for many of them it meant a hot dinner was being cooked . . . while the housewife labored in the field along with the husband and the children."  While it is clear the fireless cooker was used by women, these passages reflect a male perspective; the fireless cooker didn't so much save labor as it shifted it from inside the home to outside on the farm!

More historical resources that mention fireless cookers can be found on the NCSU Libraries Rare & Unique Digital Collections website.  To access the original publications (such as Extension Farm-News), please contact the Special Collections Research Center through the online request form.