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A range of possibilities

By JOHN GOULD / February 17, 1984



There has been no dearth of advice and instruction about returning the American home to a wood-burning paradise, but as the experts inform a new generation about forgotten forest energy lore they have shamefully neglected the kitchen range. Anybody would think all we ever ''het'' was the parlor. We soot and dampers and how to remember the telephone number of the fire department, but nobody tells how Mother used to fight her way through family to get to the midwinter kitchen stove with a pan of biscuits. In the fine days of arboreal fuel, deep under banked snow, the kitchen was the home and the range was its hearth and heart.

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Oh, there were parlor heaters, and even little tin persuaders in some of the bedrooms, but if somebody cares to ask what was done about the bathroom - what bathroom? On Saturday evening the tub was fetched from its peg in the shed, the children were laundered close to the hopping range, and the elders managed somehow after the young-uns went up to their torture with bed socks and hot bricks. Nice cold water from the pump was tempered with nice warm water from the reservoir (hot water tank) on the range, and as hot water was used more cold water was added to the tank. By now the kitchen is steamy.

The thing about the kitchen range is that nobody had to go into the front room to attend it, and, as Mom was cooking most of the time anyway, she might as well be fireman. So the range not only answered sustenance but made heat, and by opening the door into the dining room a meal could occasionally be enjoyed there too. Once a month or so. The kitchen table, instead.

And why hasn't one of these fuel experts told how to make the breakfast oatmeal? Oatmeal, not rolled oats - and hardly instant. Use a double boiler (bain marie now in the updated food news) and toss in enough oatmeal for the family. Porridge. Stir with some water until smooth, place top in bottom of boiler with the bottom boiling away. Front of stove until reaction fills kitchen with nourishing effluvia. Then, as bedtime approaches, move double boiler to back cover of stove for overnight. Stoke firebox, check dampers, see that wet mittens are taken from oven and suspended on cuphooks on mantel, wind the clock, put out the cat, see that water tank is full, give oatmeal one last stir, take hot water bottle, and go to bed.

Morning already? Descend, open dampers, add firewood, move double boiler to front cover, stir, let in cat, start bacon, eggs, home-fries, set table. In those days milk had lumps in it, so the lumps are put on the table to go with the oatmeal, and so is a jug of Barbados molasses. Molasses and cream are what made the oatmeal palatable. Children subjected to such a grueling (that's a pun, there!) fetch-up would sit there and suppose they were rich.

I guess I got carried away. But, you see, a kitchen range didn't burn briskly all night; the fire gradually dwindled to embers. Come morning, these would glow when the damper was opened, and kindling would ''ketch.'' So the oatmeal, mulling along, would now jump to a boil again and be ready. There's no way to produce this all-night effect with modern cookstoves, something essential to a properly manufactured stew. It took at least three days and two nights to osmosify a decent stew, with moving the pot from cover to cover in a culinary chess game.

Use a cast iron pot for a stew, with a tight lid. A tight lid keeps the vapors working so the numerous vegetables get to know one another, and it is required for the dumplings. If you lift the cover on nesting dumplings you get a goo of wallpaper paste - ''a watched dumpling never firms!'' So start, too, with enough water to last all through the stewing - a stew that has water added midway tattles about it. But first, sear cubes of chuck in pork fat with brown sugar, moisturize, and extemporize. Cabbage, corn, onions, potatoes, a double handful of dry beans. No tomatoes and beets - they go in soups, never chowders and stews. Do things from time to time, you've got three days. Simmer. Season. Taste again. Put in some peas. And fetch the thing along so the dumplings peak at sitting-down time.

You feed a stew like that to a family at decent intervals, and it sets up such an inward ebullience that, if you keep 'em in stocking caps and mittens, you can save five cords of wood a winter.