Convenience in the Kitchen

Every marriage has fault lines running through it; unstable zones where a couple’s differing attitudes, expectations, or habits grind against one another like tectonic plates. Tensions build. Pressure mounts. Then, all of a sudden, something from deep within - a stray word, say, that perfectly expresses a core stupidity- sets off a domestic temblor and the ground shakes. There is liquefaction. Tears squirt, jars fly. Sometimes whole houses fall down. Julia and I rarely disagree to the point that anything can be measured on the Richter scale, but we don’t always agree about everything, and sometimes the things that provoke the biggest tremors are precisely the interests that we share. Like food and cooking. Or, maybe I should say, like the tools, the toys, and the timing of cookery.

Julia feels that, as a mother of two teenagers and a business person/farm wife, she is super busy and that meals we share with our family should be nutritious, balanced, seasonal, and based around the vegetables that we grow on our farm. And furthermore, she thinks that the best recipes for us are the ones that honor our busy lives and make things easier by offering quick, efficient, kid-friendly, and flavorful ways to prepare our meals so that there is time before and afterwards for homework, school activities, chores, etc. I, of course, agree 1000%.

And Julia loves her electric tea kettle. They’re so convenient. You see them all over England where people take tea seriously.  Just fill up the glass pot, set it in its little electric nest, plug it in, and in no time you have water heated to just the right temperature and the machine clicks off automatically when it’s done. No more fussing with that old, tarnished, nagging metal tea kettle that whistled and spat and steamed when the water was finally boiling. Me, I got pretty used to that old metal teapot over the years and even when it was hot and impatient and squealing with rage I had the ability to tune it out until I was good and ready to get my butt up off the sofa and take it off the flame. Sometimes, when the modern electric teapot quietly clicks to a finish I fondly remember that old teapot and I wonder if “convenience” isn’t overrated.

Kenmore Electric RangeAnd Julia super loves her Kenmore electric range with its smooth ceramic-glass stove top that is so easy to clean. Food can’t fall down under the burner coils and get burnt into crusty carbon that must be laboriously scrapped and chipped out like in the past with our old gas stove. How convenient. It’s also super convenient that there’s a special cleaning goop manufactured for use on the stovetop that must be used to preserve the peak efficiency of the ceramic-glass stovetop surface. Personally, I find the Kenmore annoying to clean, and not least because Julia feels that only she takes the maintenance of the stovetop seriously and the rest of us in the family can’t be trusted to do an acceptable job cleaning the stovetop so she has to do it herself. Now, seriously; how is that “convenient?”

But I gotta hand it to the Kenmore designers. One time I was in a fog in the early morning; I got up, filled Julia’s little electric teapot with water just like I’d always filled the metal steam whistle abomination. Then I plopped the quiet, mild tempered little electric teapot down on the super smooth, easy to clean, ceramic-glass range top, just like I used to put the kettle on the old gas stove, I turned the knob to high, and wandered off to feed my donkeys, dogs, cattle, goats, and turkey. I knew that presently I’d be summoned back to the kitchen by a whistle. Soon enough I heard my daughter shrieking and I came back to find the kitchen boiling with clouds of acrid, black smoke and orange flames shooting up from the combustible plastic bottom of the cute little modern electric kettle. After the flames were extinguished and the melted plastic congealed and cooled and the smoke blew away so that we could see the stovetop, it looked like Eyiafjallajökull. But for all that I was able to clean the range top to a polish quite easily before my wife got home, and if my daughter hadn’t of tattled on me I bet Julia wouldn’t even have noticed that anything had happened until she went to make tea and couldn’t find her pot. Go Kenmore!

Andy’s Mud OvenSo we agree on the substance issues concerning food and cookery, Julia and I, we just differ in style. My pride and joy is my mud oven, constructed on strict Mesopotamian principles that were already antique when the first ziggurats rose above the Euphrates. My oven was given to me by myself for my 50th birthday and built for me by my multi-talented artist friend, Jon Bailiff. He formed the oven from the adobe mud I dug from my own back yard. He mixed the mud with sand from our creek bottom so that the mud, once dried, would resist cracking, and he reinforced the blend with our own oat straw grown by me on the farm in Hollister. Finally, for the ultimate, super-traditional binding agent, Jon used dried donkey poop that was created by my very own donkeys, mixed and mashed into the oven mud by my son’s feet, Babylonian style! What could be more satisfying than a meal cooked in this traditional oven entirely created from vegetables that I grew myself on my own farm, using meats from animals I’d raised and slaughtered, and spiced by herbs from my own garden? And did I mention that my oven is heated using fire wood gathered by me down in the canyon and hauled out on the back of the very same donkey that created the essential traditional binding agent!

Ok, so I cheat a little; the salt comes from the ocean via some multinational corporate conglomerate, I suppose, and the ceramic cazuelas and ollas that I prefer as cookware were imported from Spain by The Spanish Table in Berkeley, but you get the point. And no, I don’t grow the black pepper either. But Julia seems to enjoy the meals I’ve cooked in my outdoor kitchen even though I get the idea from all the eye rolling that deep down about two millimeters under the skin she believes that my interest in archaic cookery is a culinary mutation of the same atavistic mania that prompts other fat, bearded, middle-aged men to dress up in grey Confederate military drag and “reenact” the battle of Antietam in county parks across America. Except that at least Antietam was fought in 1862 whereas the struggles I have with proteins, carbohydrates, vegetables, and fats were first won by professionals back before Sargon was born. But if my wife thinks that I have barely advanced beyond mankind’s discovery of fire she is wrong because, psychologically, I have both feet planted firmly in the Iron Age. I love cast iron cookware! I’ve got cast iron pots, cauldrons, pans, trivets, skillets, and even a cast iron stove that stands to one side of my mud oven.

Since my wife is gone on an extended trip I have just bought myself a brand new, 30 pound, cast iron wok. Julia isn’t high on cast iron cookware. She feels that cast iron is heavy and that the care that must go into maintaining it clean, well-oiled, and free from rust is annoying.  Can you believe it? But wait till she sees this wok! She’s going to say it’s the most convenient thing to come along since….since….

First of all, let me mention that I have already have a wok, but it’s the kind that’s designed to be placed on a ring over a gas fire. On the super-slick Kenmore stovetop the old wok will barely get hot since its rounded bottom presents almost no point of contact and it wobbles and rocks like a drunk on a unicycle. Plus, I lost the ring a decade ago. But my new Lodge cast iron wok has a flat bottom that sits squarely on the smooth, easy to clean, ceramic-glass Kenmore stovetop, so when I turn the range on high the wok is soon smoking hot to its outermost lip. I took the wok out for a spin this last Sunday. First I cleaned out our refrigerator. I found a carrot, half of a cabbage that wasn’t too disgusting, a jalapeno pepper, the rest of a block of tofu, some dried out rice in a pot that a kid had not put a lid on, and a bag of green beans. Then I picked a head of Romanesco cauliflower and some chard stems. I chopped everything up in little uniform slices and put them in bowls along the counter next to the stove, arranged from the most substantial ingredients like carrot and cauliflower through to the tender, leafy things. A little oil in the wok, a little garlic minced to flavor the oil, and I was off. I called the kids to dinner and by the time they’d unplugged themselves from all their electronic devices a meal of veggie fried rice was ready. They attacked it like sharks.

Julia is going to like this 30lb cast iron wok because with it I can efficiently create quick, balanced, flavorful, kid-friendly meals using our own vegetables, but she’s going to love it because of the convenience it offers. Think about it this way. We practically live on top of the San Andreas Fault. It’s not a question of “if” but rather “when” do we experience a major earthquake? And when the quake hits that sleek, electric Kenmore range with the easy-to-clean, ceramic-glass stovetop is going to be about as useful for cookery as our mailbox; less useful, actually, because at least the mailbox is stuffed with combustible brochures from the AARP that can be used as kindling when my stash of pinecones and twigs runs out. So Prima with a load of firewood.when the earth stops shaking I’ll pick up the plates and jars off the floor, seize up my totally undamaged cast iron wok and head out in the yard to catch my donkey. Prima and I will go down into the canyon to gather firewood. When I’ve got some coals happening I’ll nestle my cast iron trivet down in the ashes and put a kettle of water on to make some tea for Julia. Once she’s got her tea I’ll get the rest of my heavy iron in position and wok out!

© 2012 Article and photos of Andy’s mud oven and Prima carrying firewood by Andy Griffin.

Photo of Kenmore Electric Stovetop from Kenmore.

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