A Chafing Dish is a covered dish that rests overtop a pan of water, which in turn is overtop a heat source. The heat source causes the pan of water to steam, which in turn keeps the food warm. Chafing Dishes, because they are meant to keep food warm while it is being served, are often quite fancy. They can be used for keeping something warm at the table or sideboard, or cooking at the table or sideboard. Tto keep food chilled, conversely, you fill the water pan with ice and some water, and don't turn on the heat source (obviously.)
The cover will be a roll top or a lift cover. More modern ones have vents in the lid to allow consensation to escape, helping to prevent food inside from getting soggy.
Modern ones are usually made of stainless steel. Other popular materials in the past have included chrome, silver, silverplate and copper. All require a good deal of polishing to look presentable. Manufacturers of even stainless-steel ones seem to recommended washing by hand.
For Chafing Dishes at home, the heat source is something like a Sterno can. Fill the water pan with hot water from the kettle. That way, your food won't cool down while waiting for the water to have a chance to heat up. Don't have your Sterno flame too high: you don't want a vigorous boil that will cause water to boil out onto the table.
You can also electric ones.
Very large, flat, shallow ones are used by caterers and in restaurants on buffet tables.
Ones made for outdoor use have metal pans inside, teak coverings outside. The wood casing helps reduce loss of heat to outdoors wind, etc.
You can rent Chafing Dishes in many sizes for parties.
Literature & Lore
"To-day no college-girl's preliminary college outfit is complete without a chafing-dish -- it is the sine qua non of her all-around popularity in the new life before her. Her first letters home contain rapturous accounts of savory concoctions devoured after study-hours by a dozen or more 'simply famished' friends, accounts which cause her mother to look anxious and her maiden aunt's upper lip to stiffen perceptibly, as she exclaims, 'How can any one stomach things cooked in a bedroom!'" -- Sanford, Martha Cobb. "The Chafing Dish and the College Girl". Woman's Home Companion, April 1904.
The term is quite old, already extant by the very start of the 1600s: "This streete is possessed for the most part by Founders, that cast Candlestickes, Chafingdishes, Spice mortars, and such like." ['Colemanstreete warde', A Survey of London, by John Stow: Reprinted from the text of 1603 (1908), pp. 276-285]
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