I was born in 1970 and grew up in a small town near Lancaster, PA, not at all far from Paul’s childhood home. Cue the violins...it was the stereotypical Irish household as brought to the American consciousness by Frank McCourt, consisting of all its requisite elements; a bombastic, selfish, alcoholic father, a depressive mother and three ragamuffin little kids. I was the oldest ragamuffin. It wasn’t nearly as bad as McCourt’s situation though. Our home’s first floor wasn’t perpetually flooded with sewage and I never suffered from debilitating conjunctivitis brought about by coal dust.
Not one to spend any money on anything other than himself, my father didn’t deign to even supply his family with a reliably heated home. Our house was largely heated by this (ignore the man in the foreground, a friend of the family having a beer. It’s the only picture I could come up with):
An old Sears and Roebuck cast iron cook stove. Believe it or not, that’s what I learned to cook on and what we used until we moved to a more modern home when I was sixteen. We had an electric stove as a backup, but that was kept in an unheated summer kitchen and was mostly used during the warmer parts of the year. My parents bought the iron stove for $25 at a public auction when they purchased the house in 1973. Twenty-five dollars to install a heating system!? Not bad strategizing for a crazy bastard!
We had another wood burning stove in another room of the house that supplied little heat for the upper floor. And I do mean little. It didn’t matter anyway, because by the time morning rolled around the fire had long since gone out. Getting out of bed in January took Herculean effort…but when I finally did get dressed under twenty pounds of blanket, steeled myself to exit my warm cocoon, and worked up the nerve to make a frenzied dash to that beloved old cook stove, oh, what exquisite relief. Pleasure like that is hard to come by in these days of perpetual comfort.
Needless to say, I was never the first one out of bed. And I also did my best to ensure I wasn’t the first one home from school in the wintertime. I’d try and hang out at the neighbor’s house until an adult came home and built a fire. That plan didn’t always work out and safety was not a concern, so many times at eight and ten years of age, I’d find myself playing caveman and starting a fire. Unfortunately, we never managed to burn the house down.
I doubt many people alive today have cooked over a fire in cast iron pots unless they’re camping or “rouging it” (it really makes me laugh when people tell me about their camping weekends and how cold it was and how they cooked their dinner over a gas stove. Hah! I hope you’re not trying to impress me!), but at one time in my life that was an everyday occurrence. And as insane as this sounds, I actually miss it. My mom never cooked anything more complicated than roasts, stews and pies, but for some reason apple pies and beef stew made with the most simple of elements – iron and fire – tasted so much more real and authentic than anything I’ve had since.
If I find myself failing mentally and get desperate enough for times gone by, I can buy a brand new wood-burning cook stove from Heartland Applicances:
Maybe kitchen fancier readers will know these are available, but I’m not terribly well-versed in the field and could hardly believe it when I ran across Heartland’s website. I had no idea such things were still manufactured. They have one with a little more modern styling, still wood-fueled:
If I was single, had an enormous kitchen, won the lottery and had plenty of backup cooking power that doesn't take 45 minutes to come to temperature, I’d buy one of those things and use it with aplomb just for old times' sake. Here's the old style for modern kitchens
available in gas, electric, or dual fuel. A more realistic and fitting version might be this one
with a hint of retro that would look smashing in our current house. I had never heard of Heartland Applicances before searching the web for information on wood-burning stoves, so if anyone has any information or opinions on their products, I’d love to hear about it. How my tastes skyrocketed from a $25 second-hand stove to a $7000 luxury range, I'll never know.
I look back on that stove with great fondness. After all, it kept us alive in more ways than one and, in all honestly, was not a bad experience despite what one might think. To this day, the smell of burning wood in the fall fills me with with an overwhelming sense of contentment and pleasure, no doubt a vestige of growing up dependant on it. I liken it to an experience of my favorite natural history writer and scientist, Bernd Heinrich. He and his family lived deep in Hahnheide Forest in northern Germany for several years after having fled their native Poland when the Russian Army invaded. They subsisted on whatever they could find in the forest and one of the things that kept them alive was the consumption of fried mice. To this day, Heinrich occasionally waxes nostalgic and indulges in a dinner of fried field mice at his Maine cabin.
While I have absolutely no right to compare my childhood to that of a pauper in Ireland and a wartime refugee, I like to think that when I fire up our fireplace this winter and make a Dutch oven dinner, I might understand, just slightly, what Dr Heinrich feels when he eats those fried mice.