Humans have cooked their food, mostly over wood fires, far beyond the reach of historical records. Our ancestors would be astonished by the many ways of preparing food for consumption in regular use today. Indoors and outdoors, we fry, bake, stew, barbecue, etc., using a wide range of devices from slow cookers to microwave ovens. For heat, most rely on electricity, natural gas or liquid propane gas rather than wood. Few of these devices existed a century ago.
For ages, even indoor cooking was done over an open fire. As late as the 19th century, the fireplaces used to heat houses were also the places where food was prepared. Metal hooks embedded into the sides of fireplaces supported certain types of containers while others rested directly on beds of live coals. In winter, when fires were kept going all day, deep beds of coals were usually available to heat flat irons for laundry and for cooking and warming the room. The women of the family — mothers and daughters — appreciated the warmth in winter, but found close proximity to the fire while cooking and ironing to be too much of a good thing. In the summer it was miserable.
Benjamin Franklin is credited with inventing the metal stove for heating. It did not require massive ingenuity to see that all sorts of things could be heated atop these stoves and in time some were redesigned to accommodate cooking. By the dawn of the 20th century, farm kitchens were equipped with wrought iron ranges. Wood was still the fuel and they still made for hot kitchens in the summertime, but these stoves were vastly more comfortable than fireplaces for cooking. And the food was better.
“Wood stoves” varied in size from the less costly Number 8 to the impressive Home Comfort. Smaller ones had less capacity both on the surface cooking area and in the oven. The surface had removable round plates — two to four — which made it possible to place cast-iron skillets directly over the fire for quicker heating when food preparation needed to be hurried to meet the demands of a workday. Coffee, bacon or ham and eggs with rewarmed biscuits from the day before could put the family to work in short time.
The ovens of wood-burning stoves were culinary workhorses in quantity and quality. Homemakers, magicians of the range, knew how to manage the heat and the stoves’ heavy metal ensured even temperature. From their doors emerged cornucopias of ordinary food — biscuits and baked sweet potatoes. On special occasions, baked hens or hams went from oven to table. We must not forget cakes, fruit pies and cobblers.
If the women often worked up a sweat cooking on wood stoves, men worked up a sweat providing the wood for them. A particular wood was required. Tar-filled fat lighter was needed to start the fire, but created too much soot for the pipe and chimney and burned too hot for meal preparation. Oak or other hardwood took too long to build up enough heat for cooking. Recently cut but dry pine wood worked best. The tree must be tall, slender and straight. It was felled, cut into lengths that fit the fireboxes of ranges and hauled to the house. (Much work with a cross-cut saw.) After drying for a time, the round sections were split with an ax into sections about three by three inches. Then it was “ricked” into rectangles of alternating pieces to permit airflow for further drying. A wood box in the kitchen was regularly refilled with dry stove wood.
Over time, my contributions were manning one end of a cross-cut saw, building the ricks of split wood and refilling the wood box. Heaven help if I did not beat the rain and Mamma had to try to cook with wet wood.
Wood gathering was a constant challenge. Some of the houses had multiple fireplaces and in winter time, it was a struggle to feed cook stoves and fireplaces in rooms with tall ceilings and little or no insulation. In the summer, tobacco was cured with heat drawn from furnaces through large metal flues, fueled with wood, of course. It was hard work to keep up with the demand.
No one was sorry to see innovations replace wood for heating and cooking. Soon after World War II, my father equipped his new tobacco barn with heating units that burned kerosene. Electricity was late coming to our corner of Toombs County, but the wood-burning stove had earlier been replaced by a range fueled by LP gas. Mother had some difficulty mastering the oven but was delighted at how quickly the burners heated her pots and pans. She later mastered an electric range. A heater that burned kerosene warmed the whole house much better than the living room fireplace alone.
Some folks looked back fondly on palate-pleasing dishes produced by the old wood-burning stoves, especially the Home Comfort stove, the Cadillac of cook stoves. They were big. They dominated kitchens, no matter how large. Cooking surfaces were large and ovens roomy. At the top on each side was a warming closet to store completed dishes while others were being prepared. A tank at the back heated water for washing dishes, even people. Both sets of my grandparents had Home Comfort stoves and I am inclined to agree that certain foods prepared in those stoves did indeed taste better. However, I know that time sometimes distorts perception.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.