Sounds cozy, doesn’t it? Kitchen, winter, a stove, the smell of something warm and comforting simmering away, early darkness, family and friends around the table. Well, some days it is actually like that at our house.
We have a combination gas and wood cook stove that in the cool season radiates warmth as long as someone keeps stuffing firewood into it. The ever-warm surface is ideal for making long-cooked foods like spaghetti sauce, venison stroganoff and turkey soup. I find in summer I hesitate to make soups or a long-cooked tomato sauce, turning instead to my battery of cold or cream soups and quickly sautéed fresh tomato sauces. In winter I cook up extra spaghetti sauce and make soup bases to freeze and then thaw when the weather turns warm.
The oven, which like many dual-purpose items doesn’t do a terrific job at either, maintains a constant gentle heat somewhere around 150 on most days and up to 225 or so on the coldest days when the stove is going full blast. When my stove was young, maybe 70 or more years ago, it may have cheerfully risen to 425 for biscuits by wood fired blaze, but such a heat now warps the top and I don’t attempt that. We used to try to bake with the gas element in operation, but it takes a long time to get up to temperature and burns too much gas to do it cost effectively.
The oven at winter warmth will, however, heat through a casserole and bake a pot of beans or a dish of Indian pudding if I let it go all day. Those dishes were designed to bake a long time. I have often wondered if the popularity of canned baked beans and the increasing rarity of long baked Indian pudding did not have to do with an understandable modern reluctance to keep an oven on for hours. But we like baked beans in summer, too, so I freeze some winter-baked ones for summer use.
A few years ago, when we had that big ice storm, my winter kitchen reminded me why people in past times ate their main meal of the day at noon. It gets dark by suppertime in Maine winters, and assembling a meal is tedious in the light of a kerosene lamp or array of candles. Even on a cloudy day the south-facing kitchen window sheds enough light at midday on the stove for me to see what I am doing. Most modern work schedules preclude a noon dinner these days, though it would be better for us if we ate our biggest meal at noon instead of before the evening news and a post-prandial hour or two of couch potato time.
On sunny days, the winter sun streams into the kitchen window almost uncomfortably bright, and right at eye level during lunch. We squint to eat our soup and sandwiches or, more likely, leftovers. It doesn’t help that the kitchen table is one of those old fashioned enameled jobs in white.
That table is my “island” work surface, but doubles as a bulletin board — the southwest corner, nearest the back door, sports notes to ourselves and each other, and holds objects in transit from one place to another, anything from cans of paint to the mail. I suppose every house in the country has some place like that where the inhabitants let objects remind them of tasks, people, or destinations.
That little hardworking table can seat four sort of comfortably, and has been known to accommodate five or six. We have a dining room, but in winter it is not heated unless we plan ahead, build fires and open interior doors to let the heat flow in. Most of the time, Jamie and I eat supper in the kitchen as I suppose most people do, and if we have another couple over for a family style supper we cram ourselves around the kitchen table. I let the stove serve as the buffet because by the time I put four plates, flatware and glasses on the table there is hardly room for anything more than one platter or bowl and a jar of pickles, or the salt and pepper.
My grandmother’s kitchen was large enough to accommodate a cook stove — hers was kerosene fueled — a Hoosier cabinet, sink, fridge, pantry cupboard, her sewing machine and my granddad’s Morris chair ranged around the perimeter of the room, and the green painted kitchen table usually covered with flour-sack tablecloths right in the middle. When we visited her house, I recall we scarcely ever used the living room — only for major occasions like Christmas and Thanksgiving. I used to think all kitchens ought to have a Morris chair or rocking chair. Alas, my own is too small for that level of cozy, but no one else seems to notice that it is missing and most days I don’t either.
Sandy Oliver cooks and writes on Islesboro.