Cooking up a sense of home

An old stove inspires a reluctant cook to try her hand in the kitchen.

"You could store your tools in it," says Mom, looking out the kitchen door at the old stove on the porch. It's buried under paint cans, flowerpots, and a box of empty bottles.

"I'm gonna get it hooked up and use it." Mom's been hearing this for years. Ten years, two towns, and five different apartments to be exact. Now I finally have my own house and seem to be out of excuses.

"But you can't even cook," says my sister. In high school, she made dinner for the family several times a week, while I set the table and cleaned up. She got blue ribbons for her sewing projects; I was busy skiing and riding my horse. I could convince a horse to jump a three-foot gate, but I'd never made lasagna.

In college, my roommates were shopping for accessories and dating the guys that I went backpacking and cycling with. I got my degree and spent a year in New Mexico cleaning hotel rooms, cross-country skiing, and dating men who were bad for me. Then I moved back to California and got serious about my reading list and learning to write.

By the time I got to grad school, a lot of my classmates were married, had children, and owned homes. They were grown-ups, and I was still messing around.

"I can cook," I say.

My sister and I are both right. Technically, I do know how to cook. I have a Girl Scout cooking badge and Mom's Girl Scout leader cookbook, "Cooking Out-of-Doors." It has an entire chapter devoted to food you can cook in a hole. The recipe for "Bean Hole," for instance, instructs us to line the hole with nonexploding rocks. I'm willing to bet you won't find that in Martha Stewart Living.

The stove worked its magic when my friend Jen owned it. She made gingerbread theater masks and the Manhattan skyline (the Chrysler Building was spectacular). Her pancakes were taxis and snowmen in Central Park. Then Jen got a job managing an off-Broadway stage, and left the stove with me. It was covered with grime, hardened grease, and a family of spiders had moved into the oven.

It's one of those old white enamel and chrome gas stoves built in the 1950s, the kind with four black burners and a griddle in the middle. There's a door beside the oven for pots and pans. Little brass letters spell out O'Keefe & Merritt across the top.

A couple of men come over with a propane tank and put in a line to the kitchen floor. At the end of the line, there's a red lever that you push down to turn on the gas. I look at the stove, sigh, and decide to spend the weekend cleaning off the grime. I get some chrome polish and go to work, and pretty soon it's gleaming like an old Buick.

I drive to a vintage appliance store and buy a flash tube and two knob rings and some springs for the oven door. My boyfriend rewires the stove and hooks up the clock. It keeps perfect time, and one of these days I may even figure out how to set it. The spring-wound timer sounds a slow, mechanical chinggg!, whirrr, chinggg!, whirrr. I replace the bulbs in the oven and the light above the griddle. I polish the chrome drawer that collects grease.

It sits there, waiting, while I paint the kitchen walls, install linoleum, and replace some cabinets. I begin a collection of vintage kitchen tools.

I play with the stove. I look in the oven to see if the light comes on. Cautiously, I turn on the burners. I practice making pots of boiling water. I turn on the griddle and hear the fffffwhoooosh! of the gas rushing across the burner. The red bar in the tiny window of the griddle thermometer moves to center position.

I get up in the middle of the night and the pilot lights are glowing beneath the burners. Soft little lights, quiet and warm, waiting for me to get up and fix breakfast. In the morning, I make a pancake house. Later on, I'm making gingerbread mountain ranges and bears and wild horses.

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