Today’s piece is by Sharon Buttry, an ordained pastor in the American Baptist Church and licensed a social worker. She works as associate director of training and education at the International Hope Center based in Hamtramck, Michigan, and is active in civic affairs and interfaith work. Sharon is married to Dan Buttry, the international peacemaker who frequently contributes to Read the Spirit.
Every summer during my childhood my family traveled from central Ohio to southern Illinois to visit my grandparents. They lived in a sturdy old farmhouse up in Pancake Holler, one turn off the Mississippi river road between Pleasant Hill and Grafton.
I loved watching my Grandma Crader take biscuits, cherry pie, and roasted, stuffed chicken out of her old wood cook stove. She had a water pump in the kitchen too! The big silver handle on the pump required a strong arm to get a steady stream of water from the ground to the kettle. And that chicken–well, it was alive earlier that morning. And the cherries in the pie–they came from my favorite tree to climb, right outside the kitchen door.
My grandma knew how to do things that my mother also knows how to do, but no longer “has” to, being a modern woman with a modern kitchen.
A connection to Grandma
One of my dreams came true this year, when I installed a wood cookstove in my Hamtramck, MI kitchen. My wood stove is my connection to my grandma and the pioneer strength and spirit I so admired in her.
We bought an old house in Hamtramck in 2008. It had a leaky roof and needed a lot of work. We put in our own sweat equity and the rest we contracted out with the vocational training program that is one component of the ministry where I serve part-time in Hamtramck.
We tore out some walls to expand the kitchen to make room for the Elmira wood cook stove I found on Craigslist. It was not an antique but a replica, so we could meet the fire code standards required by the city for installation.
We bought a load of antique salvage bricks in nearby Highland Park and my neighbor bought a diamond masonry saw blade from Arizona to slice the bricks into “tiles” to make a firewall behind the stove. My husband and I cruised around north Detroit looking for downed trees near curbs. We found and sawed enough wood for the winter. A neighbor took down an elm tree and offered us enough wood for a second winter.
Fire in the hole!
The stove and stack installation was done by Alpha and Omega (www.alphomegachimney.com). They are experts and I highly recommend them if you are installing any kind of fireplace or wood stove. The straight stack chimney they built created a strong draw for the firing up of my stove and looks very beautiful from the street.
A retired chimney sweep (another neighbor’s Dad) came for the first “fire up” and showed me how to build a slow but steady fire so I wouldn’t over-fire and damage my stove. The little thermometer on the oven crept up to 250 degrees after an hour and a half.
The Elmira stove is fabulous! Lighting a fire and getting it to draw up the chimney could not be easier.
Using it gives me a profound resurgence of respect for my grandmother and the tedious task of coaxing a stove up to baking temperatures. The fact is, I haven’t mastered it yet. I need “hotter’ wood than I currently have–like sugar maple, hickory or apple–to get my oven hot enough to bake bread, pies or cookies.
I remember now that besides giving birth at home and raising 12 children, my grandma worked as a seasonal worker in the apple orchards near the homestead. I am wondering now if she bartered for apple wood! So now I am back on Craigslist and putting the word out looking for free wood of these varieties.
Using a stove like a slow cooker
I currently use my wood stovetop for cooking evening meals that require skillets and covered saucepans. I installed a pot-filler water faucet next to the stoves so that as I get older I won’t have to carry heavy pans of water from the kitchen sink to the stove.
I capture the stovetop heat in large pans and in the tea kettle (see photo) that the editor of this blog kindly gave to me in exchange for a donation to WISDOM, a Detroit-area women’s interfaith organization. The kettle belonged to her grandmother, and I enjoy it so much! I use the hot water for cooking and for washing dishes and sometimes for a bath in my claw-foot tub after a long hard night of cooking!
Since I can get the oven up to only 250 degrees with my current woodstock, I treat my oven like a slow cooker, similar to a crock pot. I slow roasted a whole chicken as my first experiment. I marinated the chicken for two hours while I got my stove up to temperature. I also marinated small sweet peppers (red, yellow and orange) with lemon slices, using a quarter-cup of olive oil, a quarter cup of lemon juice and a little salt and pepper). I started the process so late in the day, I had to set my alarm for 2 a.m. to get the chicken out of the oven!
As time goes on, I hope to become maybe one-third as proficient as my grandmother in the art of wood stove cooking. If I get some red oak to use as fuel, I may even try to roast a small turkey for Thanksgiving. My son is bringing his fiancé over for the day. I wonder what she will think as I pull my slow-cooked squash and stuffing dishes out of the Elmira stove?
Meanwhile, here is Grandma Crader’s standard poultry stuffing “receipt.” (The photo is by Danny Howard via Flickr Creative Commons.)