Although I appreciate modern conveniences in the kitchen,
I thoroughly enjoy cooking over an open hearth and using
the equipment, tools, and receipts (recipes) of centuries
ago. I’ve also cooked on a cast iron stove and have dealt
with its perks ‘n quirks. In fact, I wrote here awhile back
that my initial experience with historic cooking was done
atop an iron box of fire when I worked at Conner Prairie
more than two decades ago.
Now I mention this because I recently came upon a rather
intriguing passage regarding the “hearth vs stove” debate
in The Housekeeper’s Book, by a Lady (1837):
The fire-place of a kitchen is a matter
of great importance. I have not, it is
certain, been so circumstanced as to
witness the operations of many [sic]
of the newly invented steam kitchens
and cooking apparatuses which the
last twenty years have produced,
but those which I have seen, have
failed to give me satisfaction. To say
the truth, the inventors of cast-iron
kitchens seem to me to have had
every other object in view, but
that of promoting good cooking.
The above paragraph got me thinking. If I had lived at any
time in the 1800s after the cast iron cook stove had been
invented, even after they’d become fairly common, and if
by some chance I was given the choice between cooking
at a fireplace with its spacious hearth OR on one of those
self-contained new-fangled stoves, which would I have
chosen? HA! That’s such an EASY one! My answer most
definitely, unequivocally, would’ve been…the open hearth.
Yep, this is my preferred method of cooking:
Now, below is an illustration* of a cast iron cook stove that’s
kinda, sorta, almost-but-not-quite similar to the one I used
when working in the Campbell House at Conner Prairie. As
I recall, CP’s was a bit more rounded on the sides and edges,
but like this one, the firebox was in the front, and there were
four burners with an oven (but just one) at the back. A ledge,
much like the one here, stuck out in the front, as well, and
even the legs were similar, if not the same.
(I understand, however, that a completely different model
is currently in that kitchen.):
Sure, once I learned how to cook on the Campbell’s stove,
problems were few and far between. In fact, it was actually
fun to use. And I must say, I cooked a slew of marvelously
delicious dishes on it! Of course, the best part was that
I didn’t have to bend down so far in order to use it. Still,
other than that, what is there to recommend it? And thus,
based on my knowledge of, as well as my past experience
in using, both, I believe there’s a multitude of reasons for
preferring an open hearth. In fact, I can think of at least 12!
I’ll share the first six now; the second set will follow.
Let’s get started! The reasons for my preference include:
1.) People have been cooking over an open fire, literally,
for centuries. The fire came first, cooking over it second,
followed closely by the development of appropriate tools
and equipment to do so. Change the way cooking is done,
by trading an open fire for an enclosed one, and a whole
new set of equipment and tools is required. Those adorable
pots and pans with the three little legs and the ones with
the rounded bottoms can no longer be used. Yep, legless
and flat become the operative words.
2.) You can hang pots from either a lug pole or a crane
over an open fire. With a cast iron cook stove, you can’t.
In fact, there’s no hanging of any kind of any thing.
3.) Hot coals from a fire are pulled out onto the hearth,
thus creating a series of small areas of heat on which
to cook. The number of these “burners” is limited solely
by the amount of space in and surrounding a fireplace.
With a cook stove, however, you’re confined to the four
(or so) designated spots on the stove’s top. That’s it.
4.) In conjunction with the above, any number of dishes
can be baked in little ovens (aka bake kettles or Dutch
ovens) that’re set on those numerous “burners.” With
a cook stove, you’re again restricted, to just one oven.
5.) At the same time, that stove oven (above) is quite
small. You can really only bake one item at a time. Now,
if you also had a brick bake oven, then you’d be fine.
Thing is, many people didn’t have one.
(Yes, larger stoves may’ve had more than one oven,
several even, but I’m referring to the typical, every
day common-man buyer, i.e. someone with limited
funds, who couldn’t afford the larger models.)
6.) If you’ve been cooking over an open all your life,
and your mother, grandmother, aunts, etc. before you
did the same, and that is where you learned to cook,
including how to determine the proper heat, the types
of flames and their uses, the amount of time needed
for specific dishes, and so forth ‘n so on, then you’re
in for a Big Surprise, if and when a cast iron stove
shows up in your home. Why? ‘Cuz you’re gonna
have to re-learn it all. Start to finish, top to bottom.
So hopefully, you’ve got the time, the motivation,
and the stamina. And your family has the patience!
(Not to mention the stomach for all those “tried,
but didn’t work and/or got burned” dishes!)
UP NEXT: Six more reasons for preferring an open hearth
over a cast iron cook stove.
* Drawing from Linda Campbell Franklin’s 300 Years of Kitchen
Collectibles, 5th Edition (2003).