I thought I’d go this week with the theme of “nourishment.” It’s a writing theme I came upon when deciding a long time ago that I wanted to publish a love letter to my 1930s stove. I used this stove for twenty years; my girls grew up with it. My mom once laughed at how, as small children, Zora and Lily were amazed at her stove, which required only the turning of a knob to light! No match or lighter necessary!
How times have changed. I wrote another essay about our comparatively high tech/much newer stove about five years ago.
This week I am putting the vintage stove up for sale.
It’s time. This stove, which has been on our front porch since its retirement, has served our family well, but it’s a new era. I need to let go, pare down, move forward.
It seemed fitting, too, in this season of thankfulness, harvest, and family, to revisit my “stove love” essay. Just this week a friend wrote about cast iron cookware; last week my sister Rhonda and I joked about cleaning our stoves. The world turns and yet it stays the same.
(First self-published 2004, reprinted in MaryJanesFarm, Oct.-Nov. 2010)
It’s spring cleaning time and today I’m tackling the grease, the grime, the soot; in other words, my stove. She’s from the 1930s. There’s a metal plate located inside, just below the burners, that declares her a product of The Eureka Steel Range Company, made in O’Fallon, Illinois. She was obviously top-of-the-line then, as the plate informs me she “Complies With National Safety Requirements,” but her ability is lacking by 21st century standards. She does the basics. Most of the gas holes in the top four burners, set too close together for cooking with more than large pot at a time, aren’t clogged, and the oven does a fair job, though it’s not insulated very well. The temperature regulation is, well, just a little flaky.
Her porcelain enamel finish is far from perfect. A dozen or so chips, from dime to quarter size, mar her surface. But she’s beautiful to me. In fact, I’ve loved her since the first time I laid eyes on her. She stands on four, nine-inch tall, curvy, porcelain enamel-plated, buttercream yellow legs. That color also graces her doors, sides, and the four-inch tall curved back panel. The secondary colors are two tones of sage green, a darker background with lighter streaks, in a faux marble pattern. The trim around the edges and Bakelite burner knobs are black, and fancy white porcelain pulls that dangle like earrings from chrome plates open the oven, broiler, and drawers. Not only is she colorful and curvy, but I love her design. She’s divided into two parts. One side has the four top burners with a faux-marbled cover and storage drawers below, on the other, above the oven and broiler, is a flat surface. There you can place a mason jar full of wooden spoons and whisks, spatulas, or an interesting trivet or two, or nothing, if you’re one of those minimalist types. But a minimalist would never own this stove.
The most wonderful aspect, though, is not her art deco looks. She holds memories. I first saw her when I was about eighteen, visiting my future brother-and sister-in-law’s house for Christmas. It was the early 1980s but Danny and Vicky were children of the sixties. They lived in a Victorian-era house filled with groovy thrift shop finds: fringed throws on their worn velvet sofa, faded Oriental carpets, shelves full of mismatched floral dishes, and assorted curiosities such as a brass perpetual calendar hanging on the kitchen wall and a racy early 1900s nutcracker in the shape of a set of bare, booted female legs sitting in the coffee table’s nut bowl. As I watched Vicky pull the roast duck from the oven, I admired the stove. Vicky told me it came from Goodwill. They’d paid twenty dollars for her.
A few years later, my husband and I bought our first home, an early 1900s two-story so dilapidated that my mother cried after her first visit. At the same time, Danny and Vicky were moving from their shabby chic home to a 1920s bungalow. They now had a young son, Vicky had a college degree, and they were moving closer to the mainstream. I learned that the person who bought their house was going to turn the half-acre lot into a scrap yard. I felt sickened that the beautiful cottage-style garden Vicky spent years creating was going to be destroyed, but I nearly panicked when I heard they were leaving the stove. “You have to get that stove,” I said to Andy. Fortunately, he felt the same. He contacted the new owner, who was happy to trade the treasure for our boring white Magic Chef. I felt like I had rescued a piece of family history.
I get to work, scrubbing the stove with the soapy steel wool, listening to Elvis, our rescued canary, twitter and trill to the chickadees outside the living room window. Cleaning the front surfaces, I see skinny light green streaks that mar the marbled finish between the oven on the right and the storage drawers on the left. Andy had the best of intentions. About a year after he brought her home, he wanted to do a thorough cleaning job. He’d just finished remodeling the kitchen, and wanted to surprise me when I came home from work. He had no idea the cleaner would bleach the porcelain finish as it dripped down its surface. That was over a decade ago and I still remember the look of remorse as he told me about it.
I lift the stove cover to get to the burners and notice a warning stenciled in small red print: “Caution. Turn off gas cocks before placing this cover over burners.” It takes me back to the time my sister Renea, then fifteen, pointed it out to me while bursting into laughter. That was well over a decade ago too. Renea was experiencing some serious teenage rebellion and my dad asked if she could come stay with me and Andy in Colorado for awhile. We welcomed her that spring and although there was an eleven year age distance, we became good friends. More than once, to her amazement, I left work in the middle of the day to go to her when she called me about some crisis she was having at her new school. By that summer, we were both older and wiser, and she was very homesick. She promised she would behave and went back to Missouri. I was left with memories of her ribald humor, the humor that made her crack up at the stenciled warning on the stove.
I scrub around the porcelain pulls, hanging from their decorative chrome plates (one pull, its chrome attachment piece missing, is still in a drawer, has been for years) and think of the many Christmas dinners I’ve prepared with the stove’s help. Many of my firsts were cooked in this stove–first duck, first goose, first leg of lamb. The stove has helped me prepare many holiday sweets, hundreds of sugar cookies baked with my young girls, dozens of loaves of sweet breads and many pans of baklava have emerged warm and fragrant from her womb.
As I clean out the compartment that holds cast iron cookware, I study embossed maker marks on pots and pans. The cornbread mold, touting rows of ears of corn, reads No. 273 Griswold Crispy Corn Stick Pan, Erie PA USA. Warner Ware skillets hail from Sidney (I assume Sidney, Nebraska) and a very small, and, I think, very old, skillet reads Martin Stove and Range Co Florence ALA. They hold memories of flea-marketing, searching for bargains to stock the kitchen, this stove, my life. I wonder who used these utensils, seasoned the skillets, before me.
I think of the life I’ve lived during two decades of cupcakes and gumbos. We cook now with two young daughters who love the magic of turning wet batter into golden cakes, tossing and pouring ingredients into pans, and stirring pots while they bubble and steam. One of their specialties is pizzas. Lily, now in first grade, helps me mix the dough while her sister, Zora, three years older, makes the sauce. Her recipe never varies: one can of tomato sauce mixed with minced garlic, basil from our garden, and freshly milled pepper. We grate and chop and sprinkle together. So much has changed. Andy and I have stayed together, though there have been plenty of times when I wasn’t sure we would. Danny and Vicky weren’t so lucky. It’s hard to believe that their son will graduate from high school this year, and that their daughter is almost a teenager. Danny didn’t live to see them finish middle school. My sister Renae grew up, moved to Tennessee, and is helping rear two stepchildren who adore her. She still entertains all who know her with her bawdy humor.
I finish my task and the stove stands cleaner, waiting to serve, to bake the next loaf of bread, fry the next egg, or boil the next kettle of water for the next pot of tea, a slightly-battered but loyal helpmate on this ever-revolving world, a world where everything changes yet somehow stays the same. She’ll become grimy again, yet she’ll also help nourish us through our tragedies and celebrations, a piece of the heart in the art of living.
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Postscript: Oh, how my life was graced with the sweet vibe of young children during that time. Girls helping me cook, and all of us teaching, sharing.
Until next week, INTERMISSION. Then I’ll share what happened when a new, very different used stove came into our lives.