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shameless pleading

Dutch Oven

Pot party.

Dear Word Detective: On a recent episode of the Food Network’s program “Good Eats,” Alton Brown discussed Dutch ovens and said that the origin of the name is unknown and may have referred either to the method of casting the pots, which was invented by the Dutch, or as of the result of the importation of the pots to New Amsterdam. As I watched it I thought “Aha! Evan will know!” but a quick perusal of the internet indicates you probably won’t. Since that’s never stopped you before, however, care to hazard a guess? — Jackie.

Hmm. I’m not sure how to take that. But I sense that you meant it as a tribute to my willingness to discuss questions to which I lack a definite answer. To be honest, when I first began this gig, I found the fact that reputable reference works so often label a word or phrase “origin unknown” a bit discouraging. But I have discovered, over the years, that even if a proposed origin fails to meet the standards of proof used in the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, one can still often peg it as likely to be true. Then again, I think I may have a higher-than-average tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

So, anyway, a “Dutch oven” is, for the microwave addicts among us, a large, heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. The classic Dutch oven also has legs, a sort of built-in trivet, allowing it to be stood atop a pile of burning coals, and a rim on the lid where more coals can be placed. Modern Dutch ovens, without legs, are usually made of cast iron and can be used either in the oven of a home stove or up top on the burners. It is apparently possible to cook just about anything in a Dutch oven, though stews, casseroles and the like are most often associated with the cookware.

Dutch ovens have been in use for hundreds of years, and were popular in both Britain and the American colonies in the 18th century. According to what is considered the definitive history of the contraption (“Dutch Ovens Chronicled, Their Use in the United States” by John G. Ragsdale), the impetus to their popularity in the UK and America was a visit to Holland in 1704 by a certain Abraham Darby, who studied the casting process used by the Dutch to make a superior type of cast iron pot. Darby adopted the process in England and shipped his “ovens” all over Britain as well as to America.

In his book, Ragsdale offers three theories for the “Dutch” label: the adoption of the casting process from Dutch manufacturers, itinerant Dutch salesman pushing the pots, or the popularity of the cookware in “Dutch” (actually German) areas of Pennsylvania in Early America. Of these, I think the first, that the ovens themselves were developed in Holland, is the most likely to be the original source of the name. Among other things, it would explain the use of the term in Britain. Traveling Dutch salesmen are certainly possible, but it was Darby’s company that really popularized the pots in England, probably using the “Dutch” label to lend humble pots a cachet of sophistication. And while the Pennsylvania “Dutch” certainly used “Dutch ovens,” it’s unlikely that folks in England, who had been using them for years, would adopt a name based on what the colonists called them.

5 comments to Dutch Oven

  • Jonathan David

    Dutch oven is “not” an oven. The word dutch is used in a derogatory sense (much like indian) meaning false. Hence we have expressions such as dutch uncle, dutch treat, dutch twins, and dutch oven. All of which are not true uncles, twins, treats, or ovens. Dutch doors may be an exception.

  • Mike B

    Except that a Dutch oven works really well for baking. Breads, pies, biscuits, cakes, cornbreads, and roasts all work. The flanged lid allows coals to be piled on top, so heat is being applied from the top and bottom. Of course, it works great as a pot and deep fryer.

  • pdwalker

    To further what Jonathan has said, “dutch oven” also means “to fart under the blanket” which has the effect of warming up the air underneath on a cold night. It also makes an unpleasant surprise for your unwary bed partner.

    “dutch courage” means to do a “brave” act whilst under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol.

  • mokyfellow

    I am amazed at all the fine information that is available for an old 74 year old man here on line. I am even more amazed at the comedy found here, like the comment of “pdwalker” as shown above. “to fart under the blanket”? Now really!!!!

  • El kingy

    Myself and a lot of my friends also use the phrase Dutch Oven for farting whilst holding your girlfriends head under the bed covers. It’s a widely use term for such an act, we have been investigating online trying to discover where and how this act was rewarded with such a name but we’ve been unsuccessful, if anyone can shed light on the situation this would put our minds rest. Thank you

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