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Posts Tagged ‘stove’

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Lanterns, carried to the barn to do the milking before sunup and after sundown.

It’s one of my contentions, delusional or not, that objects can be charged with power. I’ve written before about where I will and won’t forage, and when I visited an antiques store after Hurricane Sandy. In both cases, it’s choosing a setting that’s calming and positive. (Of course that choice is totally subjective; there are those who find the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas comforting, and would find my pastures and creaking wooden floors about as appealing as watching paint dry. To each his own.)

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Enormous scale, decorated with a sprig of bittersweet.

A farm store loaded with antique tools, now—this is a place of great power for me. Native nations here in the US wore the pelt or teeth of a specific animal to take on the powers of that animal. Much in the same way, when I see and touch an old utensil, I like to think I can take on the power of its maker and owners.

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Pan, griddle, mill, and other antique heavy kitchen tools, along with the triangle that called everyone to supper.

There’s a grey dustiness to everything here, but it is all still useful. These tools weren’t meant to snap in half, lose their handles after 27 uses, and be replaced with something just as poorly made. I like to think the tools are sitting there quietly, smugly, knowing they have it over everything comparable in the Home & Bath section at Target.

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Another scale and a stuffed tenant.

Very little of the stuff in my kitchen was purchased new. Muffin tins, brownie spatulas, Pyrex bowls and pans, prep bowls, my hand mixer—all were found secondhand at antique shops or at garage sales. Sometimes they were cheaper, but that’s not why I bought them. (Not entirely, anyway.) It’s because new stuff has no power.

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Not a tool, but still way cool. Wooden cream cheese and egg boxes.

Give me the potato masher that could have fed dozens of hungry farmhands in the fifties. I want the wooden-handled cookie cutters that were used to make Christmas cookies during wartime, and cheered everyone up for a little while. I’ll pass on the brand new bowl in favor of the cracked wooden one from Vermont, the one that has proofed hundreds of loaves of bread. It can proof mine now.

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Third scale. The handwritten sign on it reads, ‘Please use very gently. I’m very old. No watermelons.”

Antique tools combine the history of our forefathers and mothers, their thrift and ingenuity, their resilience. I want all of that. Who wants to be alone in the kitchen when you can have company?

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Cast-iron food mill and grinder.

And there’s more. Recently I wrote an article that mentioned a small-town baker of 50 years who wanted to retire. He passed up the tattoo artist and all of the other retailers looking to rent his space, refused to rent it to anyone but another baker. He said, very simply and very adamantly, that he was tired of everything changing.

I feel the same way about my kitchen. I’m not insane (maybe delusional, but not insane); my suped-up Cuisinart makes very quick work of marzipan, and I can’t imagine my world without parchment paper and my Silpat. But for the most part I like the idea of filling my drawers with equipment that outlasted its owners and will last for generations more. Stability: another power.

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The cast-iron stove and more heavy tools of the housewife’s trade. She must have been ripped. Kettle at top left, with a handle that could be suspended over a fire; flatiron at top right. I love the detail on the front of the oven, and its little handle.

Now then. Out of the store, onto the grounds (of unfathomable power), and into the kitchen again. Figs in the forecast.

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Americans have never been ones to linger at the table after meals. Much more often it’s take off, wash up, on to the next thing. Compare the ants in our pants to the lack thereof in places like France and Italy, where two-hour lunches, with wine, are a scant minimum. Or Spain, where people take after-meal conversation so seriously that they have a specific word for it: sobremesa. These are the people who invented sangria. They’re not itching to get back to work.

The quality of the food and drink counts, it should be noted. (I just read a study in The New York Times that showed a clear correlation between the prevalence of fast food and our ability to slow down—not just while we eat, but across the board. Shocker.)

Even when it comes to proper restaurant food and home-cooked food, I believe people are more likely to stay to talk after enjoying a well-made meal. That’s not to say average food will thwart any chance at good conversation later; it’s just that especially good food relaxes people. Relaxed people want to sit in the moment. They want to make it last. Relaxed people aren’t obsessing with their phones. They like being there, right there. And relaxed people feel safe and satisfied enough to want to contribute to, absorb, and prolong the conversation.

Gathering (after dinner especially) in front of the stove or fireplace—historically, that was the time to share stories. In earlier pre-literate times, when all of the stories anyone knew were told aloud, many, many were told after dinner. Ghost stories, didactic stories, funny stories, tribal stories, hero stories—these were most often told around a nighttime outdoor fire. Beowulf comes to mind again, the oldest literary treasure to come out of England. It was written down sometime before the 10th century. But before that it was part of an oral tradition, told around fires for some four centuries, as sparks sailed upward toward night sky after night sky, thrilling generations upon generations. Some of the world’s best literature is borne of the hours after dinner.

Today, I am happy to report here are exceptions to the scarf-and-split rule here in the U.S. They are all my people. And we always feel closer afterwards.

Start with my sister and brother-in-law and our friends Kim and Doug and their two little boys. Continue with awesome pizza at our favorite spot or one of our friends’ comforting home-cooked meals,* and end with dessert and drinks. Our sobremesa always lasts way longer than dinner.

Then there’s theatre people. We have a tendency to linger not only at tables but in restaurant parking lots after post-show dinners, just kibbutzing until the clock hits the single digits. If you have actors in the mix—and you usually do—add ‘goofing off’ and ‘howling laughing’ to the list. Does it matter that it’s seven degrees out, the lot is a sheet of ice, and we’re all getting up to work in four hours? It does not.

Mind you, we’re not usually contributing to the Great American Works of the 21st Century. (Unless you count fiction; there’s a lot of that :)) It’s typically just garden-variety lunacy. Most recently I was talking in a local restaurant parking lot with three actors who are also brilliant comics. One was having a problem with her Mercedes and was getting no help from the mechanics at her dealership. Given the subtle hints above, which of the below is the likeliest scenario that followed?

a) Thoughts were shared on how the problem could have started

b) Advice was given on how to repair the problem

c) The conversation deteriorated into animated, farcical German accents and much feigned kicking of tires

d) Suggestions were made to try another dealership

Right.

There are many ways to feel hungry, and many ways to be fed. Among them: a good dinner, which nourishes the body…and paired with a good, long conversation afterward, much more is nourished, even healed: the spirit (whose isn’t wounded, even a little?), the outlook (whose can’t benefit from a new way of seeing things?) and the group (it doesn’t need Krazy Glue? Then it always can stand a bit of reinforcement: a laugh. A chill. A sweet reminder.)

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Nutella pizza, Porta, Asbury Park, NJ,

Statement out of the clear blue sky: I created a marzipan page (all the way above) as a portfolio of my work. Visit and enjoy, and if you have any ideas for future designs, please do tell. Wouldn’t marzipan LEGOs on a cake or cupcakes be the grooviest? Now I have to talk someone into ordering them so I can try it out. Totally can’t wait 🙂

*Guys. I’m still dreaming about that creamy seafood stew.

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Skimming through my 1924 Hallowe’en party book (written back when they still threw in the apostrophe), I’m struck by all of the activities people did by hand. The book offers hosts and hostesses ideas such as cracking whole walnuts, removing the nuts within, slipping a fortune inside and gluing the shell back together; making homemade cakes and hiding more fortunes within; and setting up tubs for apple bobbing. Water, paper, mud, flour, paste—all are liberally applied in the projects provided. It’s clear the author assumed people would put their hands in stuff and think little of it.

I’m also amazed at how fearless it seems earlier generations were. In 1924—long before the advent of the Sharpie marker—instructions direct hostesses to heat the point of a knitting needle over hot coals and burn it into walnut shells to make facial features; to poise chestnuts at the tips of knives, then give to children to hold during relay races; to bob for apples with no worry for germs (the biggest risk, it seems, was spoiling your hairdo); and to douse cattails in kerosene and set them on fire, as makeshift torches.

The drawing above is on the cover of the book I mention. The little girl stands on a chair so she can reach to scoop the inside of a pumpkin. She’s five or six at best, but no adult is standing behind her to make sure she doesn’t fall. And the boy—eight? nine?—wields a chef’s knife bigger than the one in my kitchen; and again, adults are conspicuously absent.

The Little House books, which recall everyday life in the late 1800s, similarly depict an ease with skills—again, from a very early age—that may surprise us. Here is little Laura chopping vegetables alongside her mother over a primitive stove, there is her five-year-old sister Mary stitching on her nine-patch quilt. With a real needle. I used to work in nursery schools, and any project that required stitching was done with a large, plastic, dull-tipped ‘needle’. And even so, we teachers supervised at every moment.

It’s fascinating to me that earlier generations took hands-on skills for granted. I don’t support helicopter moms who scamper after their kids all day long with mini bottles of Purell, but neither would I let a child of today use a sharp needle, let alone handle a knife or hold a lit torch. I wouldn’t let a child take food out of a hot oven, or cook over a hot stove top. But apparently it’s a modern-day phobia.

A chicken and egg conundrum comes to mind: Were people a few generations ago braver than we are today? Or did handling knives and needles and fire on a regular basis make them braver, just by cultivating confidence in their ability to use tools and to harness elements safely and effectively?

Let’s take it a step further. Looking around at where we are today, ever in pursuit of the faster, the shinier, the more advanced, have we lost pertinent skills?

With a few exceptions, we tend to buy our quilts today. Meals often mean microwaving or eating takeout. Not many prepare party foods from scratch, opting instead to cater some or all of it. Does the average person know how to slice an onion anymore? Does it even matter?

I posed this question to a friend who both cooks and thoroughly enjoys his gadgets. He said some skills are worth more than others, and one could argue that it matters more to know the ins and outs of technology rather than kitchen skills. If you really needed something chopped, you could hire someone to do it or (increasingly) buy it already prepared.

Most of us in the modern world need to know how to operate cell phones and work laptops, as those before us knew and used skills that were essential for their time. I’m all for any technology that brings people and ideas closer together.*

I guess I’m just wondering if forgetting how to sew on a button by hand or how to slice an onion is worth what we’ve otherwise gained. I’m a cook and an artist, so my hands are everything. I’m compelled to get my hands dirty to access a personal, almost primitive power that makes me feel more human. But that’s one person’s take.

What’s yours?

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*Recently set myself up on Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/mcproco/) and Twitter (@evesapple7).  Come play!

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