New Hampshire Glossary: Gridiron

Standing grill or gridiron, 17th century, possibly Spanish. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Internet Archive.

This article has nothing to do with the sport of football. So if you arrived at this story looking for pigskin or a sport other than cooking, you can move along. The gridiron I am writing about has to do with grilling or broiling food and how it was performed 100 years ago and more.

A blogger and expert food author in Facebook’s Genealogy Bloggers group, Vera Marie Badertscher, inspired me. She wrote a story called “Grandma Vera Cooking on the Grill in 1910.”  She had old letters and a not entirely clear description of some family grilling, and so it became my quest to discover exactly how a gridiron was used.

Gridiron, 1700-1800, Iron and iron alloy, Metropolitan Museum of Art. 25-3/4 inches. Internet Archive. (See the small built-in drip pan).

The art of grilling or broiling is an ancient one. Some say that this style of cooking was performed in ancient Pompeii. Others state that the aborigines of the American islands taught Columbus the art of grilling.

I will not be investigating who the first historical griller was.  What I do know is that as early as the 17th century forged iron metal grates, called gridirons, were used to cook with, and can be found in museum collections (as shown here).

Before I continue, I need to clarify that there were TWO kinds of gridirons common in use. The most common gridiron was a flat, single layer of forged iron grating (with holes or slats) often decoratively made, with a handle. Fish or meat would be laid on top of the greased metal gridiron in a smokeless fire or in front of it, either in a fireplace, or in an outdoor fire pit.

Illustrated Catalogue, Benham and Sons, manufacturing and ironmongers, London. 1868. Internet Archive.

The second kind of gridiron was the one described in a 1817 publication of the Ipswich Journal (Ipswich England) for a “Double Wire Gridirons for Sprats, &c.” The double wire gridiron was an opened-sided cage of woven wire and iron that held the meat or vegetables inside, and was hung above the fire. Like the common gridiron, this could be used in both a fireplace or above the fire in an outdoor cooking pit.

Single or double, in the fire or placed before it– it was usually recommended that whatever gridiron you used, it should be well larded–rubbed with grease, butter, or  oil. The gridiron was used to broil or grill food over coals or a smokeless fire. Sometimes a bit of salt was sprinkled over the fire to reduce the smoke.

Typical items cooked on a flat gridiron were fish, meat, chops and sometimes poultry. These same foodstuffs could be cooked in the wire double gridiron too, as could oysters, potatoes and mushrooms. A drip pan could be placed beneath the gridiron to capture juices and prevent smoke.

With the advent of the cook-stove, moveable gridirons were made to fit into the round stove covers, allowing the cook to to grill over the direct flame. It was really not until the modern cook-stove came into use that grilling methods changed to broiling and began to move into the back yard in the form of barbecue.  And before you ask, my research shows that the earliest users of the gridiron were women, just as they were the primary cooks in many early households.    In the 1880’s several newspapers carry stories of “Gridiron Cooking Clubs” that were composed of local ladies interested in this style of cooking.

Oh, and one more thing–a caveat just as appropriate today as it was then.  “A fork should never be used in grilling, for if the surface of the meat, or fish, or whatever it may be, should be perforated by the tines of the fork, the juice and steam of the interior would find vent, and the meat collapse, instead of being puffy, and possibly be hard and tough. All good cooks employ tongs which they use with considerable dexterity and freedom.” [From the Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery, ed. by Theodore Francis Garrett, p 721; 1898].


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12 Responses to New Hampshire Glossary: Gridiron

  1. Amy says:

    Never will I use a fork to turn the food on the grill again!

  2. Fascinating story! Of course, I can see how useful and practical these would be over a campfire. Even I could handle one of those. Yes, I’m a woman!

  3. Fun post! And, yes, I’m guilty of fork turning. My parents had a later version of the double gridiron that we used over a campfire to cook burgers.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Liz, thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, double gridirons are still in use today by campers and those wishing to cook over an open fire, or even on the backyard barbecue, they are just lighter and made of steel instead of iron.

  4. Pingback: Cooking in Colonial New Hampshire | Cow Hampshire

  5. Janice, thanks so much for picking up the research on my Grandmother’s grilling where I dropped it. Although she certainly had a stove in 1910, I suspect from her mother’s letter that this would have been a gridiron installed over a pit. Do you agree?

    • Janice Brown says:

      Vera, I agree. Over one or more grilling pits outdoors. I suppose when you had a great number of guests you would have to do that. The indoor grill on the cook stove would not be enough.

  6. Pingback: Grandma Vera Cooking on the Grill in 1910 - Ancestors in Aprons

  7. Michael says:

    Duly noted about the need to be careful with the tines of the fork! 🙂 Thanks for this history lesson, Janice.

  8. Very informative post! I have the kind that you use over a campfire, but haven’t even had a chance to use them yet! Now, I am anxious for next summer and campfires! Lol

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