Have you ever wondered how pioneer women found the time and energy to make dinner after trudging across the plains all day? The answer, in many cases, was the hay box, also known as fireless cookery.
Hay boxes are the predecessor to today’s crockpots and slow cookers. The principle is simple – once a food has reached its boiling point, that temperature just needs to be maintained long enough to cook it properly. Pioneer women would begin preparing their evening meal in the morning, before the wagon trains left, by heating dinner over a fire and then placing the boiling, covered kettle, in an air-tight hinged box packed with hay to retain the heat. A hay-stuffed pillow was placed over the top of the cooking pot, the box was shut securely and then placed on the wagon, where the meal would continue to cook until it was time to set up camp again in the evening.
The hay box, or “hot box” was resurrected by the ladies of the Cambridge Ward Relief Society in the 1960s and provided a way to cook elegant meals for hundreds of guests at elaborate ward parties. One sister told of the sweet and sour pork she made for a ward luau using hot boxes, as well as haddock stuffed with cucumber-bread stuffing, baked in aluminum foil and then placed in an insulated container to cook the rest of the day.
By the 1960s, however, the sisters had decided to take advantage of modern technology. According to the book Mormon Cookery from New England, published in 1966, “The primitive ‘hay box’ has evoluted [sic] into the ‘asbestos box,'” which simply meant they improved the insulation in the cookers by lining the boxes with asbestos! (Don’t try this at home).
If you should be interested in hay box cooking, it is a wonderful way to expand your emergency preparedness skills, and instructions for constructing hay boxes out of almost any airtight container can be easily found on the internet. That being said, a mylar emergency blanket provides a safer way to line your box and shredded newspaper can be used in place of hay (in case you don’t live on a farm!). Once you have your cooker, you can use it to make everything from meats to oatmeal and sourdough breads. What would you try first?