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Hotheaded stove ruled the roost

Nov 5, 2013


My mother was not the ruler of our ranch house kitchen. The ruler was our cookstove, and a bossy tyrant it was.

Always, before moving to Eastern Oregon, mother’s stoves had done as she wanted — just with the push of a button or the twist of a dial.

But that massive stove in the corner of our kitchen thought otherwise. The problem was it burned wood. And it had a voracious appetite.

I knew well about its insatiable hunger. Every evening, I brought in from the woodshed countless armloads of wood as next day’s supply for the cookstove and our-woodburning heater.

And our cookstove was a control freak as to the kind of wood it wanted.

If my stepfather, Lynn, cut the wood a bit too long, the stove never tried to cooperatively squeeze the extra length into the firebox. If mother, nevertheless, crammed it in with the stove lid awry and the excess length sticking out, smoke soon filled the room.

If the wood was too small, the stove gobbled it up almost before the firebox door could be closed.

Nor did our bossy stove accept damp wood. But pitchy wood it gobbled up as it were dessert and immediately wanted more.

Mother’s biggest challenge, however, was its oven. Always before, if she wanted a 350-degree oven, she merely dialed, or pushed buttons.

Mother’s woodburning stove was not about to be controlled that way. Rather it “controlled:” mother with the device on its oven door: a round thermometer with glass face, one long needle, and numbers by which mother was advised as to the oven temperature she would get.

When she mixed a cake that was to bake at 350 degrees and was ready to put it in the oven, she might discover the needle had gone down to 275. She then made a quick trip to the woodshed for pitchy, or kindling-sized wood to quickly bring the temperature higher. But when mother then looked a few minutes later, that ornery stove would have pushed the needle up to 425.

A real tussle was always in store when mother baked her temperamental angel food cakes, but mother soon learned that one way to out-think her stove was to plan, plan, plan — and to feed her stove the exact kind of wood it wanted, long before starting to bake. She had to kowtow to that stove.

Eastern Oregon hospitality also added to mother’s trials with regard to that kitchen queen. An unwritten hospitality edict decreed that any visitor arriving at a ranch — at mealtime, before or after — should be invited to, and provided with a meal, if the visitor so desired.

And so it was that mother’s heart sank when we would just have finished our noon meal, had fed all leftovers to the dogs, cats and/or chickens, and we kids were already washing the dishes, and Joe, a rancher from upriver, riding for cattle, would show up at the ranch and tie up his horse at the gate,. When Lynn then asks him in, and as per that hospitality edict, asks Joe if he wouldn’t like my mother to fix him a little something to eat, Joe, who hadn’t bothered to pick a lunch and had a long ride ahead, indubitably says, “Well, if isn’t too much trouble.” And mother knows well that neither Lynn nor Joe is thinking of a cheese-sandwich meal.

It was then necessary for my distraught mother — in those days before we had a freezer or leftovers — to start all over preparing a meal. And it was to be a meat and potatoes meal. At this point, she fervently hoped that her stove would be cooperative and at least there would still be a fire or at least coals in the firebox — but that was never to be.

Before even starting the meal, mother now has to build a fire and bring it up to proper temperature to boil the potatoes and heat the lard for the fried meat.

To be fair, that iron-handed ruler of the kitchen was quite handsome for its day. It had enough shiny gee-gaw metal to bring a hefty return had it been sold for scrap metal — which mother often wished she could do.

But, to be truthful, it did have some good features. Its reservoir was indeed our “hot-water system” — if we kids remembered our job of filling it. Although cold water was piped to the house from our spring, electricity had not yet come to Monument, so the stove’s reservoir was our hotwater tank. The tank was on the far side of the stove, beyond firebox and oven, and residual heat nicely warmed the reservoir water — and kept it warm.

The stove’s warming oven was another nice feature. This “oven” was some two or three feet above the stove top, attached to the chimney, and extended the entire length of the stove. Its pulldown door kept out flies and kept food warm when Lynn, plowing in the lower field, didn’t arrive on time for meals.

And the stove’s recalcitrant big oven was a godsend during lambing. On bitterly cold mornings during lambing, as Lynn made the rounds, he sometimes found a just-born lamb, inert and almost frozen. He then brought it to the house, placed a gunny sack on the open oven door, poured a bit of whiskey down its throat. Usually within a few minutes, the lifeless little creature started kicking and coming back to life.

But offsetting these good features, our stove had yet another fault: it was vain, vain. It wanted always to be polished to a fare-you-well. When fat spattered on its surface as meat was fried, or when potatoes boiled over and sullied its surface, it then expected after every meal to have its top polished to a sheen. So, dutifully, while the top was still warm, mother took out a piece of old towel kept for that purpose, doused it with a bit of bacon drippings and shined the top of that snooty stove to glistening cleanliness.

But mother, at last, had her day. Electricity came to Monument and to our ranch and about the first thing that then happened was for that tyrannical old stove to be booted out and replaced with a beautiful electric range.

And I am glad to say, we then lived happily ever after with a fine benevolent ruler of our kitchen — my mother.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at rohse5257@comcast.net.

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