Saturday, June 5, 2010


Back in December we bought ourselves a new range and oven for Christmas. It’s one of those all electric glass-topped jobs, easy to clean, but I’m still having trouble figuring out the proper way to cook with it. Especially the oven. Maybe it needs a thermostat adjustment. It seems to take the oven much longer to heat up, and I swear that 350 degrees isn’t as hot in the new oven as it was in my old Harvest Gold relic from the late 1970s. I find I must set the temperature 25 degrees or so higher than called for in the recipe. But not always. It depends on the material the pan is made of. Glass pans heat differently than metal pans, as any cook knows.

At least I thought I knew what any cook knows. I find myself remembering a story my grandmother told me about her own mother’s oven. She cooked on one of those gigantic cast iron behemoths. The heat came from a wood fire that she made in the fire-box, a compartment beside the oven. After years of practice, she knew exactly how much fuel to use, and how to stoke it, flame it, and let it die down in order to achieve the oven temperature she wanted. And how did she know when the oven had reached said temperature? She opened the door and stuck her hand in. She knew by feel when the oven was just right for making biscuits or cornbread, or slow roasting a hen, or baking a pie. The oven had a hot water reservoir with a spigot just to the side of the oven. As long as she had a fire in the stove, Great-Grandma could have hot water whenever she wanted. She adjusted the heat of the burners on top of the stove with a series of flues and burner covers.

The family tale is that one year Great-Grandpa bought her an oil-burning oven, cutting-edge turn-of-the-Twentieth Century technology, as a very special gift. As you can imagine, a huge cast-iron contraption is not easy to move. But between all the males in the family and probably a couple of mules, they managed to get the wood-burning stove out of the kitchen and stowed in the barn and the oil-burner installed. Great-Grandma used the new contraption two or three times, then had Great-Grandpa, the boys, and the mules, bring her wood stove back to her.

Like any artist, with years of use and practice a cook develops a relationship with her instrument and knows exactly how to play it in order to create the perfect tones and hues she wants. Even if you are a virtuoso, starting over with a new instrument is difficult.

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