A History of Chafing Dishes by Adam Kelly

Chafing dishes have been around for millennia and are a sort of indoor barbecue set in the form of charcoal-burning braziers and, possibly, the forerunner to the fondue set. Beautifully crafted bronze chafing dishes were found in the ruins of Pompeii, showing they were in during the first century AD. They were highly prized by the Romans at their lavish banquets and later mentioned in historical letters dating to 1520, when the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, described to Charles V their profuse usage for keeping plates and dishes warm during sumptuous banquets for hundreds of gormandizing noblemen at the height of the Aztec empire. The sixteenth century baroque painter, Diego Velazquez, portrayed a woman preparing a meal of eggs in a chafing dish and Louis XV’s kitchens used them to keep the dainty dishes for the epicurean courtiers piping hot. By the seventeenth century this form of cookware was being documented in household inventories in America.

Velasquez’s chafing dish appears to be earthenware, but silver chafing dishes used as plate-warmers were mentioned during the reign of Queen Anne, at the end of the seventeenth century. It was George II, around the middle of the eighteenth century, who had the foresight to put handles on the chafing dishes, which must have made life so much easier for the cooks and scullery maids of the time! The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, exhibits a gleaming copper chafing dish with brass fittings dating to circa 1895. Copper is an ideal metal because it is hard-wearing and conducts heat evenly while the brass handles remain cool enough to lift and move around.

In the 1950s the hostess trolley was designed. This was essentially a large chafing dish (or series of dishes) on wheels in a wooden surround to imitate a piece of furniture. It was thought to liberate women from the kitchen, enabling her to prepare food in advance and keep it warm, while she entertained the guests along with her husband. These fell out of fashion relatively quickly as the penchant for formal dining declined along with tastes for food left standing on a hot plate for several hours! With the demise in popularity of the hostess trolley came the revival of the chafing dish, more versatile, space-saving, portable and attractive than the great wooden tiered hearse for plates.

Nowadays a silver chafing dish (or at least, silver plated) is a popular accessory to any dinner table and can cost as little as $15.00 and whether your taste runs…

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