JULIE BOTNICK (This piece was first published August 8, 2012)
Each week, we rummage through the dark corners of our kitchen drawers to bring you an enigmatic item. We ask you to guess what it is in our weekly From the From the Back of the Drawer puzzle. To enter this week’s puzzle, visit this page. To read more descriptions of past items, visit this page. And, don’t forget to donate your odd items to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
This week we found a Salamander!
The 1975 Cooks’ Catalogue, edited by James Beard, Milton Glaser, ad Burton Wolf, writes, “It looks like an instrument of torture, or of far-out self-defense—take that, you swine—but it is, instead, a time-honored device for browning the top of otherwise finished foods.”
Before a dish gets to your table at a restaurant, it usually sits under something called a salamander, an overfired broiler that keeps the food warm and browns it from above. But before electricity made broiling as simple as turning the nob all the way to the right, “salamander” referred to this tool, a round steel head on a long handle that would be heated up in the fire then passed over foods that need a little crisping on top, like crème brûlée and gratins.
The tool’s namesake animal is known in mythology as the “fire lizard.” Salamanders often live in damp logs, or in habitats in places destroyed by wildfires. Because they were seen scurrying from fires, they gained a reputation for being fireproof, that they were born in fires, and even that they fed on fire. This tool, too, was put directly into the fire, a seemed to breathe fire, caramelizing and browning dishes that were put directly under it.
Special thanks to Chef Rob McFadden at Johnny V’s Uptown Bistro for helping us demonstrate the salamander.