An extinct dog breed once labored in our kitchens, running on spit-turning wheels

The Vernepator Cur was once a ubiquitous dog breed in the UK and the American colonies, and it had a job: for six days a week, it ran tirelessly in a wheel in the kitchen that was geared to turn a meat-spit over the fire (on Sundays it went to church with its owners and served as their foot-warmer).

The Vernepator Cur (AKA the "turnspit dog") was bred to replace the children who once labored in kitchens, turning spits until their hands blistered, and their heyday was 1750 to 1850. But by 1900, they had dwindled away, thanks to the rise of spit-turning machines called clock jacks.

The turnspits were mentioned in Shakespeare; they fascinated Darwin, and their cruel lives led to the founding of the SPCA.

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: The Rise And Fall Of The Vernepator Cur [Kitchen Sisters/The Salt]

(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)