Davia Nelson, Nikki Silva

463895653_masterIn an old hunting lodge on the grounds of an ancient Norman castle in Abergavenny, Wales, a small, extinct dog peers out of a handmade wooden display case.
The Canis vertigus, or turnspit, was an essential part of every large kitchen in Britain in the 16th century. The small cooking canine was bred to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit in cavernous kitchen fireplaces.
The turnspit was bred especially to run on a wheel that turned meat so it would cook evenly. And that’s how the turnspit got its other name: vernepator cur, Latin for “the dog that turns the wheel.”
Back in the 16th century, many people preferred to cook meat over an open fire. Open-fire roasting required constant attention from the cook and constant turning of the spit.
When any meat was to be roasted, one of these dogs was hoisted into a wooden wheel mounted on the wall near the fireplace. The wheel was attached to a chain, which ran down to the spit. As the dog ran, like a hamster in a cage, the spit turned.

3 thoughts on “Davia Nelson, Nikki Silva

  1. shinichi Post author

    Turnspit Dogs: The Rise And Fall Of The Vernepator Cur

    by The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva)

    http://kitchensisters.org/

    http://www.wnyc.org/story/turnspit-dogs-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-vernepator-cur/

    In an old hunting lodge on the grounds of an ancient Norman castle in Abergavenny, Wales, a small, extinct dog peers out of a handmade wooden display case.

    “Whiskey is the last surviving specimen of a turnspit dog, albeit stuffed,” says Sally Davis, longtime custodian at the Abergavenny Museum.

    The Canis vertigus, or turnspit, was an essential part of every large kitchen in Britain in the 16th century. The small cooking canine was bred to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit in cavernous kitchen fireplaces.

    “They were referred to as the kitchen dog, the cooking dog or the vernepator cur,” says Caira Farrell, library and collections manager at the Kennel Club in London. “The very first mention of them is in 1576 in the first book on dogs ever written.”

    The turnspit was bred especially to run on a wheel that turned meat so it would cook evenly. And that’s how the turnspit got its other name: vernepator cur, Latin for “the dog that turns the wheel.”

    Back in the 16th century, many people preferred to cook meat over an open fire. Open-fire roasting required constant attention from the cook and constant turning of the spit.

    “Since medieval times, the British have delighted in eating roast beef, roast pork, roast turkey,” says Jan Bondeson, author of Amazing Dogs, a Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, the book that first led us to the turnspit dog. “They sneered at the idea of roasting meat in an oven. For a true Briton, the proper way was to spit roast it in front of an open fire, using a turnspit dog.”

    When any meat was to be roasted, one of these dogs was hoisted into a wooden wheel mounted on the wall near the fireplace. The wheel was attached to a chain, which ran down to the spit. As the dog ran, like a hamster in a cage, the spit turned.

    “Turnspit dogs were viewed as kitchen utensils, as pieces of machinery rather than as dogs,” says Bondeson. “The roar of the fire. The clanking of the spit. The patter from the little dog’s feet. The wheels were put up quite high on the wall, far from the fire in order for the dogs not to overheat and faint.”

    To train the dog to run faster, a glowing coal was thrown into the wheel, Bondeson adds.

    Descriptions of the dogs paint a rather mutty picture: small, low-bodied, short, crooked front legs, with a heavy head and drooping ears. Some had gray and white fur; others were black or reddish brown. The dogs were strong and sturdy, capable of working for hours, and over time they evolved into a distinct breed. It was the zoologist Carl Linnaeus who named them Canis vertigus, Latin for “dizzy dog,” because the dogs were turning all the time.

    Before the dogs, the fireplace spit was turned by the lowliest person in the kitchen staff, usually a small boy who stood behind a bale of wet hay for protection from the heat, turning the iron spit for hours and hours. The boys’ hands used to blister. But in the 16th century, the boys gave way to dogs.

    Shakespeare mentions them in his play The Comedy of Errors. He describes somebody as being a “curtailed dog fit only to run in a wheel.”

    “Curtailed means they’ve got their tails cut off,” Sally Davis, of the Abergavenny Museum, says. “It was a way they used to differentiate between the dogs of the nobility and the dogs belonging to ordinary people. These little curtailed mongrels were the ones put into the wheels.”

    We visit Lucy Worsley, chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces of London, at Hampton Court Palace, the home of Henry VIII, where a fire is roaring in the huge, old kitchen. “Charles Darwin commented on the dogs as an example of genetic engineering,” she tells us. “Darwin said, ‘Look at the spit dog. That’s an example of how people can breed animals to suit particular needs.’ ”

    On Sunday, the turnspit dog often had a day off. The dogs were allowed to go with the family to church. “Not because of any concern for their spiritual education,” says Bondeson, “but because the dogs were useful as foot warmers.”

    There are actually a few records of turnspits being employed in America. Hannah Penn, the wife of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, wrote to England requesting that the dog wheel for her turnspits be sent. Elsewhere in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette had advertisements for turnspit dogs and wheels for sale. And historians say a turnspit was active in the kitchen of the Statehouse Inn in Philadelphia.

    “The Statehouse Inn was where all the old political cronies hung out for their slice of beef and their ale,” author and food historian William Woys Weaver tells us. “In 1745, the owner of the Statehouse Inn advertised that he had turnspit dogs for sale. Evidently he was also breeding them.”

    The dogs were used in large hotel kitchens in America to turn spits. “In the 1850s, the founder of the [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] was appalled by the way the turnspit dogs were treated in the hotels of Manhattan,” says Weaver. “This bad treatment of dogs eventually led to the founding of the SPCA.”

    In 1750 there were turnspits everywhere in Great Britain. But by 1850 they had become scarce, and by 1900 they had disappeared. The availability of cheap spit-turning machines, called clock jacks, brought about the demise of the turnspit dog.

    “It became a stigma of poverty to have a turnspit dog,” says author Bondeson. “They were ugly little dogs with a quite morose disposition, so nobody wanted to keep them as pets. The turnspit dogs became extinct.”

    Back at Abergavenny Museum, Whiskey, the last remaining turnspit, is a permanent fixture. Sally Davis thinks the blue painted background and spray of artificial flowers in the case are a sign that someone really cared for her. “But the way she’s posed,” Sally says, “the taxidermy … I think possibly it was their first go at it, I don’t know.”

    What kind of dog today is the closest to a turnspit dog? Bondeson thinks possibly it’s the Queen of England’s favorite dog, the Welsh corgi. “The downtrodden, lumpen, proletariat turnspit cooking dogs may well be related to the queen’s pampered royal pooches.”

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  2. shinichi Post author

    The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are Peabody Award winning independent producers. Their non-profit 501c3 production company is dedicated to creating public media and educational programs that work to build community through storytelling.

    The Kitchen Sisters are the creators of hundreds of stories for public broadcast about the lives, histories, art and rituals of people who have shaped our diverse cultural heritage. They are the producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning NPR series Hidden Kitchens, the two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project, with Jay Allison. They are also the producers of The Hidden World of Girls, a series on NPR that explored the lives of girls and the women they become and The Making Of…, about what people make in the Bay Area and why, a production with KQED and AIR.

    Hidden Kitchens heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below the radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired their first book, Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR’s The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 2005 and nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food.

    Lost & Found Sound, a national collaboration that went on air in 1999 chronicles American life through recorded sound. In 2001-2002 The Kitchen Sisters created and spearheaded The Sonic Memorial Project, a collection of radio stories and audio artifacts, a website and archive (www.sonicmemorial.org) commemorating the life and history of the World Trade Center and its neighborhood. This nationwide cross-media collaboration was awarded the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York Award for most innovative use of archives and the NFCB Golden Reel for Best Hour-Long Radio Documentary.

    Other recent work includes the radio special Hidden Kitchens Texas, narrated by Willie Nelson, which was nominated for a James Beard Award and the inspiration for their second book, Hidden Kitchens Texas: Stories, Recipes and More from the Lone Star State, and Cry Me a River, a portrait of three pioneering river activists and the damming of wild rivers in the West, that aired as part of the series, Stories from the Heart of the Land.

    The Kitchen Sisters began their radio lives producing a weekly live radio program in the late 70’s on KUSP-FM in Santa Cruz, California. Their early interest in gathering oral histories greatly influenced their style of production. Their radio documentaries have been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition, the BBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Smithsonian, California Public Radio, Pacifica Radio, Soundprint, and others.

    Some of The Kitchen Sisters noted stories include: Waiting for Joe DiMaggio; The Nights of Edith Piaf, Carmen Miranda- the Life and Times of the Brazilian Bombshell; WHER—1000 Beautiful Watts-The Nation’s First All-Girl Radio Station in the World; Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Memories of an Invented City; Tupperware; The Road Ranger; and War and Separation.

    The Kitchen Sisters are involved in educating and training new voices for public media in an imaginative, artistic and creative approach to storytelling. They have taught at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, University of California Santa Cruz Social Documentary Graduate Program and frequently lecture and provide training at universities throughout the country and abroad. They have an active internship program and work with emerging producers, college students, and youth radio apprentices.

    The Kitchens Sisters give public presentations and conduct live onstage interviews at festivals, conferences, radio stations, public forums, universities and events throughout the country (see calendar). They conduct regular workshops in San Francisco and around the country, most recently at WNYC in New York City and KUOW in Seattle.

    In addition to producing radio, Davia Nelson is also a screenwriter and casting director. She lives in San Francisco. Nikki Silva is also a museum curator and exhibit consultant. She lives with her family on a commune in Santa Cruz, California.

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