In a nod to my childhood in this small mountain town, I still cook many of the family meals on a wood cookstove, a Richmond model made by Olds & Whipple of Hartford, Conn. This black behemoth is bedecked with fancy nickel plating featuring two naked cherubs holding bunches of grapes and plenty of Victorian-era scrollwork. The four dampers are used to control the fire and regulate the extent to which the heat either goes under the cooktop and up the flue or takes a circuitous route around the oven for the purpose of baking. It also has a copper-plated reservoir on the right side that heats up about three gallons of water. The trick to starting the stove is to use very fine kindling and not too much of it. A small, hot fire gets a draft going, which then sucks out the smoke that otherwise would leak out into the kitchen and cause the fire alarm to sound, a not uncommon occurrence in our household.
Using a wood cookstove takes some practice. Birch is good for a quick, hot fire. Seasoned, split oak or butternut is better for a longer, slower burn. Maintaining a moderate oven temperature is pretty easy, but getting the oven hot enough for, say, biscuits is another matter. On a cold morning, the stove can refuse to start a draft or it can start to cool suddenly right in the middle of bread baking. But over time, one gains a sixth sense about such things, and the cookstove becomes a part of the family. Like a good friend, my antique offers unexpected pleasures. The warming shelf is great for holding dinner plates and letting doughs rise. It keeps a kettle of water at a simmer all day, handy for a quick cup of tea. On a cold winter's morning, the kitchen fills with the faint smell of wood smoke and maple syrup as the kids tumble out of bed in nightshirts to a pancake breakfast.
My neighbor John purchased a new pickup a few years back, a bright red Dodge Ram with a snowplow on the front. It cost him nearly $30,000, so he sold me his 1981 Ford F-150 to help offset the expense. The Ford had more than 150,000 miles on it, the truck bed was badly rusted, the tires were almost bald, and the front bench seat was starting to lose its covering. I had some bodywork done, had it painted red, bought new tires, had the tie rods and muffler replaced, had the clutch adjusted, and put on a new rear bumper.
John and I met on the road one day, each of us in our pickups, his new and mine old. He didn't say much at first, just looked at his old friend in its new coat of paint, and then asked about the corn crop. A few months later, I noticed that he kept his new truck parked up by the cabin and drove around town in an old brown Rabbit that started only about half the time. He often talked about getting the Rabbit fixed, but never did-he had to give it a push down his driveway to get it going most mornings. Two years after he sold me the F-150, the Ram was gone, sold to a farmer over in New York State. He never said a word about selling it, but he admitted over a glass of stout that he sure did like the way that old Ford rode.
Today, John is getting on in years, but he still works every day up in the woods, clearing land, pulling down "widow-makers" (trees that have been blown over and get hung up in the branches of neighboring trees), and, I think, enjoying himself out-of-doors while making himself useful. One knee made it difficult to walk a year ago, but a simple operation put things right, and he's back to going full steam. He's making sausages, raising pigs, and doing a little Polish cooking on the side.
Back at the stove one morning, I had biscuits in the oven and eggs scrambling in a cast-iron skillet on top. The tea kettle was steaming and the fire was good and steady, just right for warming the feet of my four kids, who had come down for breakfast. I glanced over at the new gas range nearby and thought that, yes, sometimes the old is better than the new. I had rescued this old cookstove from a decorator's kitchen, where it would have served out the rest of its days as an "antique," a place to display family photos, knickknacks, or baskets full of potpourri. Antiques are things that no longer serve a useful purpose, yet deep in the soul of every old car or old man is a yearning to carry a load. The day will come when our paint will be peeling, our truck beds rusted, and our engines run a bit rough, but we're ready, willing, and able to do our part. We just need to be given a jump-start and a chance.