Last summer food writer Molly O’Neill had a piece in the New Yorker magazine about Viking ranges – those big, honking multi-burnered, chrome and burnished steel, all-gas-and-gorgeousness kitchen stoves that wealthy and sophisticated people (or the wannabes) purchase and install in their homes. Trophy stoves, she called them, next to which these same folks eat their Chinese take-out, supposing one day they will start cooking seriously. We islanders see and sometimes cook on those stoves from time to time in the kitchens of summer people. It seems to be the thing to do, build a trophy kitchen in the trophy home, and install a trophy stove. Some people even add a trophy wife to the collection.
I think you have to be one heck of a cook to turn out better grub than some of the rest of us manage to create on our more conventional or even antiquated stoves. I have a wonderful stove in the antiquated department with which I have a warm relationship.
Our old Dual Atlantic, made in Portland, Maine, is not original to our kitchen. The stove that used to be here, a cast iron and chrome number, migrated across the street many years ago, and has since moved on. We knew we would want a wood cookstove and found a refurbished one up at Bryant’s Stove Works in Unity. In a sea of black and chrome, it was a bright spot of tan enamel about the color of coffee with quite a bit of cream in it, a color that matched exactly the woodwork of our kitchen. Four gas burners on the right, and a roomy surface over a wood box on the left. A perfect combination for meals like Christmas dinner, where we had roast pork and roast turkey and needed to make two large pans of gravy plus cook vegetables with everything being finished at the same time.
Older friends walk into our kitchen and so often say, “this reminds of my grandmother’s house.” Part of what brings on a fit of nostalgia is the smell of a wood fire and cooking food. At this very moment, the oven has a pot of beans in it, baking at 225 degrees, easily obtainable just by running the stove for warmth. Since it is very cold outside, we will keep the stove well stoked, and I needn’t worry about the beans cooling down. What a luxury to bake beans this way. Or to keep a pot of soup, tomato sauce, or chili simmering. Long slow cooking of the sort like a boiled dinner so common in New England’s past could be an extravagance when one has to turn on a burner. Pancakes fried on a pan over the firebox heat evenly, where over the gas burner, there are hot spots. That is why I miss cooking on wood in summer.
Plus all winter it is our pot-and-pan dryer. Wash a pan and stick it back on the stove for a minute, hissing and popping till it is dry enough to put away. What a good helper. Bread rises comfortably on the shelf above, and it is a perfect place to thaw a container of frozen soup. My husband dries out his gloves and boots, and warms his chain saw on that shelf, too.
Our stove has its requirements. Firewood, of course, and kindling. Among the three stoves used to heat this house, the kitchen stove can take the longest kindling, so I have the habit of sorting the miscellaneous scraps and chips into three piles, stacked in the space we call the wood room, the connecting part of the house between the kitchen and barn. An airbrushed picture of the Young Elvis saved from my mother-in-law’s estate hangs on the wall over the firewood – Elvis, the patron saint of our kindling.
We add wood to the stove by opening one of the lids in the stove top, and poking it in from there. Our judgment about what length and girth of wood will fit into that space has been refined over the years so that the wood box gets only the right-sized sticks. That very wood box, left over from the early days, was here in this house but installed in the dining room when we moved in. It clearly fits its spot in the kitchen like a glove and is painted the same 1930’s-era green that we can see behind some loose kitchen wallpaper.
The kitchen stove is where we build the first fire of the day and on a very cold morning, Jamie and I hover near it waiting for hot water for coffee, warming our faces. Somehow we have the illusion of feeling warmer even as our feet at floor level are unconvinced of it. And it is where we, and visitors, gravitate when we first come in from outdoors.
My grandparents used to have an old black cast iron and chrome kitchen range, too, and my dad used to tease my mother about how many hours she spent backed up to that stove when she still lived at home. “You had calluses on your hinny, Louise, from leaning on that stove,” he’d say. “Like heck, I did,” she’d say. But she did have scorched apron strings.
I lean up against my stove, too, and relish the warmth. It’s hard to snuggle up to baseboard heaters, or toast your shins with radiant heat.