Dear Word Detective: On a recent episode of the Food Network’s program “Good Eats,” Alton Brown discussed Dutch ovens and said that the origin of the name is unknown and may have referred either to the method of casting the pots, which was invented by the Dutch, or as of the result of the importation of the pots to New Amsterdam. As I watched it I thought “Aha! Evan will know!” but a quick perusal of the internet indicates you probably won’t. Since that’s never stopped you before, however, care to hazard a guess? — Jackie.
Hmm. I’m not sure how to take that. But I sense that you meant it as a tribute to my willingness to discuss questions to which I lack a definite answer. To be honest, when I first began this gig, I found the fact that reputable reference works so often label a word or phrase “origin unknown” a bit discouraging. But I have discovered, over the years, that even if a proposed origin fails to meet the standards of proof used in the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, one can still often peg it as likely to be true. Then again, I think I may have a higher-than-average tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.
So, anyway, a “Dutch oven” is, for the microwave addicts among us, a large, heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. The classic Dutch oven also has legs, a sort of built-in trivet, allowing it to be stood atop a pile of burning coals, and a rim on the lid where more coals can be placed. Modern Dutch ovens, without legs, are usually made of cast iron and can be used either in the oven of a home stove or up top on the burners. It is apparently possible to cook just about anything in a Dutch oven, though stews, casseroles and the like are most often associated with the cookware.
Dutch ovens have been in use for hundreds of years, and were popular in both Britain and the American colonies in the 18th century. According to what is considered the definitive history of the contraption (“Dutch Ovens Chronicled, Their Use in the United States” by John G. Ragsdale), the impetus to their popularity in the UK and America was a visit to Holland in 1704 by a certain Abraham Darby, who studied the casting process used by the Dutch to make a superior type of cast iron pot. Darby adopted the process in England and shipped his “ovens” all over Britain as well as to America.
In his book, Ragsdale offers three theories for the “Dutch” label: the adoption of the casting process from Dutch manufacturers, itinerant Dutch salesman pushing the pots, or the popularity of the cookware in “Dutch” (actually German) areas of Pennsylvania in Early America. Of these, I think the first, that the ovens themselves were developed in Holland, is the most likely to be the original source of the name. Among other things, it would explain the use of the term in Britain. Traveling Dutch salesmen are certainly possible, but it was Darby’s company that really popularized the pots in England, probably using the “Dutch” label to lend humble pots a cachet of sophistication. And while the Pennsylvania “Dutch” certainly used “Dutch ovens,” it’s unlikely that folks in England, who had been using them for years, would adopt a name based on what the colonists called them.