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...When a foraging officer demanded of the wife of Jotham Townsend the keys of her corn-crib, and on her refusal drew his sword, she flourished an oven peel — for she was preparing to bake bread — at the representative of the Crown, and asked scornfully if he drew his sword upon women. The disconcerted officer smiled and was soon out of sight.
Elizabeth Fries Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution, 1848
...she came to an oven that stood in the path, full of warm, new-baked bread, one loaf whiter than the other, and a peel lying ready at the oven's mouth. The oven said: " Dear little maiden, do me no harm, a poor oven ! Eat as much as thou wishest, but take nothing with thee, and shove the remainder back into the oven." The girl begged it not to be afraid, for that she would certainly do it no harm. She then took the peel, opened the oven's mouth, drew out a warm, new-baked loaf, and began to eat; but having eaten as much as she required, she shoved in the remainder, closed the door of the oven, and restored the peel to its place; then continued her wandering. The oven cast a friendly look after her, and wished that all might go well with her in the world.
The Two Caskets, a Scandinavian folk tale
Oven peels, baker's shovels, bread paddles
A peel is an ancient baking tool, yet also completely modern. For thousands of years bakers have moved loaves in and out of hot ovens on a long-handled shovel. 21st century urban people, even those with no interest in cooking, may have seen this happening at a pizza restaurant.
Peels, or baking paddles, have been used in many different cultures, in different eras: in brick, stone, clay and metal ovens. Today, fashionable peels for domestic baking may be made of shiny stainless steel and have shorter handles, but the basic design has hardly changed.
A two thousand year old sculpted tomb in Rome (bottom left) shows a baker using his peel in just the same way as the medieval baker illustrated on the right. Households with their own bread ovens needed the same equipment; the three upright wooden peels (left) are displayed in a 17th century Scottish kitchen. An 18th century peel in New England was made of iron. In mid-20th century New Mexico, the bread was lifted with wood. (See below right)
The technique has to be practised. Sliding lumps of dough neatly off a flat spade from a distance isn't easy, if you want your loaves to look good. Peels can also be used for non-bread cooking:
To broil Eggs.
After heating an Oven Peel red hot, blow off the Dust, break the Eggs on it, and put them into a hot Oven, or brown them on the Top with a red hot Fire-shovel...
The Lady's Companion, 1743
At home, women using peels for smaller-scale domestic baking might find them handy weapons, just as they sometimes made use of washing bats. Unlike laundry tools, however, peels were also the symbol of a male trade or profession, and were important enough to be included in certain coats of arms.
A baker's peel is traditionally carried by St. Honoré (Honorius) alongside his bishop's crozier. His nurse laughed at his childhood hope of becoming a priest. That's as likely as my oven peel growing leaves, she said. Then her bread shovel started to sprout, and the rest you can guess. St. Honoré is the patron saint of bakers, especially in France.
Alternative spellings include peal and pele.
19 September 2007
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