“Your motherboard is shot,” the repairman said, shutting the door to my electric oven and gathering his tools. What a cozy word, I thought, for the complex electronic object that no longer governed my stove. “Eight years,” he explained, “is about the lifetime of this appliance. You’re lucky it made it to 10.”
At moments like these, I get nostalgic for the simpler, more durable cooking setups I’ve worked with — old-fashioned gas stoves, wood-burning cook stoves and even fireplaces — all of which could turn out a good meal.
In the late 1970s, I lived with my young son, Chris, in a house built in the 1690s. The rooms were small, with ceilings and doorways so low that most people stooped to enter. But the fireplace was vast. Two men could easily stand up inside it while bringing in the giant logs that were once required to heat this old dwelling and keep a family fed. The beehive oven set in the back wall was too intimidating to use, but I’d make soup in an iron pot, hung from the horizontal crane that swung over the fire.
I also cooked while kneeling on the hearth. Potatoes could be covered with ashes that were hot enough to bake but not burn them. Pots could sit near the coals, raised on trivets to keep the bottoms from getting too hot. That worked best with simmered dishes, but I also baked corn bread, turning the pot to keep the heat even.
In a house that was difficult to heat, that fireplace was our friend. Chris and I would sit in front of it at night, reading C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” series and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books.
I have a small fireplace in my present kitchen that I sometimes use for cooking, aided by an adjustable Tuscan grill, a simple iron frame that holds meat or vegetables just the right distance above a bed of coals. I learned about it from our friend Alice Waters, who has a fireplace in her California kitchen. She once cooked me a well-buttered egg using a very-long-handled iron ladle over the fire.
As romantic as the hearth can be, cooks must have loved the convenient, free-standing stoves that Benjamin Franklin brought into their lives. I like the way a wood cook stove heats up, with very hot, medium and merely warm spots — a versatility that modern insulated stoves lack. In a small two-story house where my husband and I once lived, our wood cook stove heated all the rooms, and, thanks to a coil in the firebox and a tall copper tank, supplied all our hot water, too.
At the beginning of the 19th century, gas entered American kitchens, but by degrees. The stove I use now is from that era, a “duel fuel” range with four gas burners and a wood-fired oven. I don’t use the oven, which, because of its one-sided heat, does not bake evenly. Nor does it broil. Hence the modern oven that sits next to it with the delicate computer.
I may sound like a quirky Luddite, but consider what so many American families do when they get a house with a yard. They set up a grill with fire under it, on which to cook food. Some Paleolithic echo must draw us to the mouths of our caves where flames are flickering and fat is spattering, as the day draws to a close.
Cooking with fire is mostly a summer pleasure, but it’s a shame to give it up in cold weather, when it can warm you as well. We have a wood stove in our current home, for supplemental heat, a modern Danish unit called the Bando, from a company called Rais. It has a tiny “oven” on top. Like the rest of the stove, the oven is soapstone clad, to absorb and radiate heat, but at first it seemed useless, merely a protruding shelf with no door. Then one day I set a potato on it, and the potato baked.
I can fill a baking dish with root vegetables from our garden and roast them on that shelf. It’s easy to check on them when I feed the stove, rotating the dish so they don’t burn. Beets and celery root can take four hours, but potatoes, winter squash, onions, carrots and garlic soften quickly, especially when the fire is roaring on a cold winter day.
It is too early to start most spring vegetables from seed, but if you have an indoor seed-starting apparatus and are itching to germinate something, try leek seeds. Seedlings started now should be ready for transplanting in April, after “hardening off,” or conditioning for the garden environment.
— Adrian Higgins