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Friday, 19 July 2013

Turnspit Dogs: A Cook's Best Friend

     Since the mid sixteenth century, turnspit dogs have been known to be associated with the work of roasting meat in large English houses. Classified among "the mungrell and rascall sort" in A. Fleming's Of Englishe dogges (1576), he noted that they were "in kytchen service excellent" even though he considered them to be "the last of all those which wee have first mencioned".

     Their work consisted of running on a wheel that was connected to iron pulleys and chains in order to turn meat while it was roasting on a spit. This is an illustration of how they were arranged in an inn in the town of Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire, from Henry Wigstead's Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales, 1797.

     Fleming's assessment of their use was quite clear: they "so diligently looke to their businesse, that no drudge nor skullion can doe the feate more cunningly". Wigstead, however, observed that the turnspit dog at the inn in Newcastle would "immediately hide himself for the remainder of the day" when he would "observe the cook approach the larder". This was not an insignificant problem with Wigstead noting that, when the dog ran away, "the guest must be contented with more humble fare than intended."

    Some assertions have been made that they were kept in pairs, being switched out of the wheel as they grew tired. It is a sensible assertion though I am not aware of historical sources that state this.  It is likely that some people only had one, larger households may have required a number, while the best-equipped households used smoke-jacks (pictured below) instead of or in combination with dog-powered mechanisms.
     The breed is now extinct, seemingly due to two reasons: modern aesthetic shifts in household pets, and the nineteenth-century decline of open hearth spit-roasting with the rise of cheaper cast iron and better "enclosed" ovens. It seems only one stuffed example exists: "Whisky the turnspit" held in the collections of Abergavenny Castle, Wales (currently housed in the Hunting Lodge at the castle).  

Photo Credits (Wikimedia users): Unknown. Also, Gail Hapke.
 By: Ryan Whibbs

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