Esther Shuttleworth talks about the cookstoves she has used over the years.
Old cookstoves are a unique way to bake for your entire family.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
During the depression I cooked and canned on a "stove" made of bricks stacked five high with a piece of tin or metal laid across the top for a grill. I kept the fire going underneath with twigs, any bits of lumber I could find, corncobs and wood split from trees we cut with a cross cut saw.
Our first iron cookstove, believe it or not, had a door on both the front and back of the oven . . . and a tiny little hole under the grates from which we had to dip the ashes with a large spoon. It was strictly a wood burning range . . . but you will never taste ambrosia until you have eaten potatoes pan-fried in an iron skillet on an old cookstove.
The second cookstove we owned was more modern. It had four lids (burners to the present generation), an oblong cooking space, big oven and a reservoir which—kept filled—always yielded scalding hot water for many and various uses. Above all, it had an ash pan with which you could clean the firebox with a minimum of mess and effort. The warming oven at the top was another extremely handy feature and, to make the range perfect, it would also burn coal and hold a fire overnight.
The stove required no thermostat for either its top or oven. You simply moved your pans from the reservoir toward the front of the range to get any desired heat and you soon learned to judge baking temperatures by touching a wet finger to the oven door.
Our next cookstove was a wonderous enameled job with a water coil in the firebox. We connected this through a wall into a tank in the bathroom and the stove then supplied us with cooking and baking facilities, heat and hot water for bathing! Alas, we moved during WW II and had to leave our treasure in the old house. Through some government agency we got a paper that allowed us to buy another cookstove but this one was not exactly new and a little enamel was missing here and there. It was still a good range to heat and cook by.
Youngsters sometimes ask if a wood burning stove isn't hot to cook on in the summer. No, not especially. In the summer you use cobs, old shingles, twigs and small splinters of wood to build a quick fire that burns out rapidly. And you do it again for the next meal. Besides, the proper place for a wood burning range is a big, old farmhouse kitchen that you can open up in the summer.
Whenever I see advertisements for "new" ovens that clean themselves, I have to chuckle. My old cookstoves never had places (not even the ovens) that required scouring like the electric range we have at present. Of course things ran over and burned . . . but soon you could lift or wipe the ash away and no spot remained at all. Nothing ever seems to happen to the top of a cookstove except that, over the years, it will lose its intense black look. A quick wipe with a greased paper will take care of that.
There's one more point in favor of the old iron stove and that is, yes, food cooked on one really does taste better. I don't actually know why but I suspect that—in the case of baking anyway—the intense, dry heat of a cookstove's oven browns on a crust so fast that almost all the flavor is immediately locked into the pie, loaf of bread, roast or whatever. It's a simple matter then to slide the dish or pan forward to ` just the right spot" nearer the oven door so that the goodies within can bake at their own deliberate pace. There is a difference!
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