A kitchen vessel somewhat resembling, in form, a spider. A trivet to support vessels over a fire. — Webster, 1882
The iron spider is an insect strange, / He loves to stand upon a red-hot range. / Unlike his race, he’s not an octo-ped; / He has but three legs and he has no head. / Had this but been the kind Miss Muffet saw, / ‘Twould not have filled the maiden with such awe. – Carolyn Wells, The Bumblepuppy Book (1903)
A cooking vessel with a handle and three iron legs is called a spider; it may or may not have a lid. Without a lid, a spider could be used as a frying pan. With a lid, coals could be placed on top in order to create a bake-oven. A separate trivet with legs on which a frying pan or bake-oven rests on the coals of an open fire is also called a spider.
Because a spider might have been an unfamiliar item to children even in the 1930s, Wilder painted a word-picture for her readers (see Chapter 3, “Camp on the High Prairie”): “The spider had short legs to stand on in the coals, and that was why it was called a spider. If it had had no legs, it would have been only a frying pan.” The only Little House book in which Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions the use of an iron spider for cooking is Little House on the Prairie; they are not found in Pioneer Girl or any other Little House book.
In Little House on the Prairie, Ma uses the iron spider to fry salt pork, fry bacon, cook a prairie hen, fry beefsteaks, cook rabbit stew, and fry pancakes. Below are some spider hints and recipes from old Kansas newspapers.
A Baking Hint. Did you know that a common iron spider is a fine baking pan for many things? If you want a perfectly round cake that will rise high without running over and bake perfectly, try baking it in an iron spider. The thickness of the iron prevents the cake from burning on the bottom, and you can lift the spider by the handle much easier than you can handle a cake tin. This may sound old-fashioned, but if you try it you will never bake your round cakes in anything else. Then, if you want a good thick pie of “Brown Betty,” there is nothing better than the iron spider for this. Covered with another skillet of the same size it makes a fine meat roaster, and it is much better than a granite pan for baking puddings or scalloping corn or potatoes. —The Oberlin Times (Oberlin, Kansas), February 1, 1901, page 6.
To Clean the Spider. When an iron spider becomes rough and heavy from long use, try cleaning it off by setting it on the hot coals for an hour or two, turning occasionally. When taken out it is claimed it will be as smooth and clean as new. —Douglass Tribune (Douglass, Kansas), May 22, 1908, page 3.
Good Way to Fry Beefsteak. Take an iron spider, half fill it with warm water and put it over a hot fire. The spider must be very hot before putting the steak in it. When the water boils rapidly pour it off. This heats the pan evenly and does not burn or crack it. Put over a clear fire next till it is all dry from the water, place the entire slice of steak in it, but do not put salt in it, for it draws out the juice which should be retained in the meat. Cook rapidly for a minute or two, then turn over and cook the other side the same. After this quick turning turn back to the first side if you do not like it rare and cook till it is done as much as you like, but keep turning every minute, and on no account let it scorch or burn. When it is cooked remove whole to the platter. When the steak is removed you may pour hot water into the pan for gravy. When it is brown turn into a small pitcher, as there isn’t much of it, but do not turn the water gravy over the steak or you will spoil it by making it tough. Sprinkle pepper and salt over the steak, and be generous with the butter ans you can afford to be since you use none to cook it with. For a change, render out a piece of suet after frying the meat. In this fry some sliced onions till they are brown rings. Arrange these around the steak. —The Richfield Monitor (Richfield, Kansas), October 15, 1910, page 7.
Cornbread. One of the best cornbreads made of yellow cornmeal owes its special excellence to the fact that it is baked in a well heated, buttered cast iron pan. For convenience use an iron spider about ten inches in diameter. Sift two cups of yellow cornmeal, and if it is kiln dried the hard particles in it must be softened to make a cake as good as that made of fresh ground meal. To do this pour over the sifted meal a cup of scalding hot milk in which an even teaspoonful of soda has been dissolved, and beat well. When the mixture is cool, add a cup of sour milk and two eggs beaten light and two heaping tablespoonfuls of sugar and a teaspoonful of salt. Beat the batter very thoroughly and pour it at once into the steaming hot buttered spider, which should be ready to receive it. It can be put into the oven at once if a plain and excellent cake is wanted. It is an addition to it, however, to pour in the center of the cake, so that it runs in it evenly, a cup of rich sweet milk. On no account stir the cake after adding the milk, but put it at once in a very hot oven to bake. This last cup of milk does not thin the bread if properly added, but forms veins of creamy substance through it which add to its delicacy. —Goodland News (Goodland, Kansas), January 13, 1901, page 5.
spider (LHP 3, 7, 26)