A new stove and an old cookbook

About a month ago, the oven on my range quit working. The stove came with our house when we bought it more than 20 years ago. It has been a great appliance and has only let me down once before. About five years ago, I put a roast in the oven and went out to the garden. When I returned, the smoke detectors were screeching and the house was filled with smoke. I turned off the oven and peeked inside. The roast burst into flame. I slammed the door shut and ran to the basement to flip the breaker which cut off the electricity to the oven…just in case. When things cooled down and I had opened all the windows to clear the smoke, I took the charred remnants of the roast out of the oven. The oven control had just gotten tired and didn’t shut the oven off when it got to operating temperature.

The repair man said new parts for this stove weren’t available anymore, but he had a control he could modify to work. He fixed my stove and it served me well until recently, when the oven control quit again and refused to heat the oven at all. By this time the burners had started to heat unevenly and one had quit completely.

I decided to replace my 1968 Hotpoint range. The stove, which was new when I was 19 years old, deserved to be retired and recycled.

I bought a snazzy new gas range. It can almost cook by itself. It even has pre-programmed buttons for baking chicken nuggets and pizza.

Those reason for these special options baffle me. I have never cooked a chicken nugget. Reading the ingredients on the package of some brands would be enough to keep me from ever pressing that button. I do make pizzas, usually from scratch, but on occasion I heat up a frozen one. The controls on the stove are simple to use and I could easily figure out how to set the appropriate temperature and times if I were going to heat up a chicken nuggets. What does it say about the kinds of foods being prepared in kitchens around our country that a rather nice stove would have special settings for foods which could just as easily be heated up in a microwave or a toaster oven? I would assume that the manufacturer has done some kind of market research that indicated these are foods frequently cooked by potential customers and therefore adding “chicken nugget” and “pizza” buttons would make their range more desirable and salable. Those buttons, however, were not the selling points that sold me on this particular range.

While getting to know my new cooking tool, I pulled out the cookbook I inherited from my Aunt Ida, my father’s oldest sister. The “Presidential Cook Book” was, according to the introduction, adapted from the much more comprehensive “White House Cook Book” and was compiled by “world-famous chef, Hugo Ziemann, steward of the White House under the Harrison administration.” The first copyright date is 1896.

Inside this book are handwritten recipes, clippings from magazines, a newspaper article listing one of her nieces’ making the honor role, a grocery list and bits of embroidery floss, all tucked away by my beloved aunt.

The yellowing pages give directions for all kinds of interesting dishes such as fried cucumbers, roast quarter of lamb, how to smoke a ham, and roast haunch of venison. There is a section of cooking for the sick and table etiquette. Reading this old book illustrates clearly that how we cook and what we eat have changed in 125 years. The recipes are far different than those found in a modern cookbook. This book assumes you know how to cook and have had someone teach you with hands-on practice to know when something “feels right.” The instructions include “a piece of butter the size of an egg,” or “flour to make a stiff dough.” Many of the measurements and directions are not exact. The author assumed you would know when enough is enough. I doubt if many of the wood stoves used to cook these meals had a precise thermometer. The cook had to know when the bread had enough flour added, but also when to add a few sticks of wood to the fire. There are no directions for using mixes, precooked, or packaged foods. There are no microwave options.

There is a recent, renewed interest in cooking and using unprocessed, raw ingredients. Whole channels on cable networks are devoted to cooking and food. The “Food Channel” was my great-nephew’s favorite television channel when he was a preschooler. Cookbooks are still being written and sold. There are millions of recipes for just about everything accessible on the internet. Young people are beginning to grow gardens and to cook. We are rediscovering the joy of sharing good food with our family and friends. Perhaps the next generation of ranges won’t need “chicken nugget” or “pizza” buttons.

No, I haven’t used the “chicken nugget” setting on my new oven yet, but maybe someday. I’m sure it will be just the temperature and timing for something. Homemade muffins maybe?
Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains