[Sca-cooks] pottery braziers, cooking in pottery

lilinah at earthlink.net lilinah at earthlink.net
Wed Jun 22 00:03:44 PDT 2011

Daniel asked:
> The one question I have about braziers for heating or even 
> cooking indoors is the potential for carbon monoxide 
> poisoning. In a closed room in period would such be a problem?

Well, given what i know of Ottoman architecture, both at the highest and at much lower social levels, it seems to me buildings were pretty drafty and rooms were not all that tightly closed.

The Koreans and, i believe, the Japanese traditionally have done as the Ottomans in winter: a brazier with hot charcoal is put under a low table. Since everyone sits on the floor, a quilt is put over the table, hanging over the edges, covering everybody's laps and the family, sitting around the table, are also wrapped in quilts and drawing warmth from the brazier under the table. I have seen 19th c. Ottoman drawings of this (i'm trying to see if i can find any online), as well as modern Korean films. Of course, house fires were not uncommon in places that have wooden houses, and i imagine other terrible accidents also took place. But given the draftiness of typical architecture as i know it, i suspect that carbon monoxide poisoning was not the most common danger.

Even homes of mud brick or stone, as in much of the North African and Arabic worlds and Anatolia, were not so tightly sealed as our modern homes - no glass windows, just shutters -- except perhaps where people live in civilized caves, as in parts of al-Andalus and Anatolia; doors might not fit perfectly into their lintels, adding to potential air flow. Also there would be limited upholstery and no masses of Victorian draperies to hold in gases (i recently heard a fascinating true tale of a haunted late 19th c. family - in the US or UK, i forget which - whose woes turned out to be caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from burning coal in their grates in flues not properly ventilated.)

As far as cooking: palaces and homes of the wealthy had separate kitchens, usually with fireplaces and ventilated cook stoves (there are photos and old drawings of the Topkapi showing details of that palace at least), so probably less likelihood of danger to the cooking staff.

The poor, the majority of the population, had no kitchens. If they cooked at home, it would be in a somewhat sheltered but basically open-air courtyard. For example, the vast vast majority of urban poor in Constantinople never cooked. Stephane/Stefanos Yerasimos says in "A la table du Grand Turc"/ "Sultan Sofralari":
"...we know that in the Istanbul of the 16th century, scarcely 6 per cent of houses had kitchens. In other homes they cooked in their courtyards or ate outside [i.e., not at home]. This fact is neither unique nor new. Numerous European travelers who visited Cairo in the same era noted that the poorest bought their food already prepared, and we know as well that numerous taverns of the Roman era served to feed the least comfortable classes of the populations. The principle reason seems to be tied to the cost of fuel. To cook with the same quantity of wood for many in the public cook shops was more affordable than to maintain a fire for the needs of isolated families." (my translation)

In the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries, the prices of meat and of bread were maintained, at perhaps artificially low prices, so that the working poor could afford to eat reasonably well -- bread at every meal with some accompaniments and meat at least several times per week, purchased ready made food from market stalls and wandering vendors. Scholars have pointed out that not only the continuing expense of fuel for cooking, but the expense of cookware, plus the cost of raw materials (meat, bread, produce) would be greater than the cost of buying already prepared items. Additionally sultans, emirs, and other high status wealthy men and women endowed imaret, which were institutional kitchens that fed the poor two meals a day, with some sort of meat included. It seems to me possible that some of the poor perhaps spent a bit on charcoal for warmth in the winter. But i suspect, as noted above, that unintended catastrophic fire was a greater hazard than carbon monoxide poisoning.

>From what i can tell, and my knowledge may be imperfect, Arabic braziers tend to be rectangular while Ottoman tend to be circular. I seem to recall that Persian braziers were rectangular, but i am relying on potentially fallible memory. I don't know what Andalusi braziers would have looked like, since TTBOMK none has survived and almost no painted manuscripts survived from al-Andalus, even though that culture was famed for its poetry and literature. During the Reconquista the Christian Spaniards burned nearly every book they found on the off chance that it might be a Qur'an. From almost 800 years in the Iberian Peninsula, only a unique illustrated manuscript, "Bayad and Riyad", survived the immolations.

Here is an article about Ottoman braziers:
>From what i can tell, all or nearly all in the photos are 19th c.
(note the cute little rectangular hookah brazier)
This is not exactly a scholarly article, but it has some useful information.
Urtatim [that's err-tah-TEEM]
the persona formerly known as Anahita

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