ah Jack, we hardly knew ye

Before the invention of the rotisserie, a large roast required someone to sit by a fire, engulfed in smoke and heat, to keep the animal turning. So naturally, people devised ways to do this automatically

image of Jack Ruby found here

The least complex and most inexpensive way to turn a roast required little investment, depended on string alone, and involved a semi-manual method. The roast was suspended at the end of a long string attached by its other end above, perhaps from a wrought-iron dangle spit; hanging free it required only the flick of the cook’s hand to set it spinning.


If you were a wealthy soul living over 300 years ago, you had some kind of mechanical utensil to turn a large roast on a spit on the hearth of a large cooking fireplace. Perhaps the oldest and most impressive of these was the clock jack installed on the wall either above the lintel or off to one side-a devise that turned the spit through a system of belts or pulleys.

Clock Jack

The early English word jack referred to the name of a common man who did menial work, or to a contrivance that saved human labor. The jacks (like clocks) incorporated a series of gears and springs to do the work. They were activated by either a key and spring system or by hanging weights. The speed of the spit was regulated by the “governor,” a small weight or a series of fan blades on the jack that slowed the winding down; the weight of the meat on the spit worked the same way.

Governor found here

The source of power for these labor-savers is also interesting. While elaborate mechanical gadgetry had obvious advantages, people of more limited means or needs managed to get by with systems that were at least partially manual. Thus one learns of early dog jacks where the animal itself, running in place on a wide moving belt, set the pulley-gear assembly in motion.

dog power

An Italian version (1827) that turned “130 different roasts at once, and plays twenty-four tunes, and whatever it plays, corresponds to a certain degree of cooking, which is perfectly understood by the cook. Thus, a leg of mutton a la anglaise, will be excellent at the 12th air; a fowl a la Flamande, will be juicy at the 18th, and so on.” Needless to say, only the most opulent, wealthy, or ambitious of kitchens would need one of these.

Jack has long been a popular name for boys. Its meaning is given as “God is Gracious” which might explain what Jack Nicholson is aspiring to in this photograph of his First Communion found here

Published in: on April 26, 2010 at 9:04 am  Comments (43)  
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