Cooking class demonstrates versatility of wood-burning stove

Cooking with wood

You can cook anything on a wood-burning stove that you can make on a modern one, history interpreters told those participating in a cooking class at the West Baton Rouge Parish Museum. But not easily.

During the morning class on April 8, Linda Collins, the museum’s education program associate, and Gayle B. Smith, who describes herself as an historic foodways enthusiast, demonstrated how to prepare a Great Depression-era lunch of white bean soup, vegetable soup, rabbit stew and rice, turnip greens, cornbread, biscuits and bread pudding.

Dressed in period clothes, they focused on food sources and cooking methods of the 1930s because that’s when the museum’s Reed House, used by tenant farmers, was built and that’s where its Depression-era, porcelain-enameled, wood-burning stove is set up.

Smith, an experienced open-hearth cook, admitted she is a “novice at cooking on a wood-burning stove” as she struggled to keep the six-burner stove’s oven hot enough to bake cornbread.

She also needed even heat for the stove-top where she was cooking rabbit with smothered onions and carrots, a white bean soup and collard greens, but the stove-top had hot and cold spots — typical for such stoves.

“I’m actually using coal,” she said, showing the stove’s fire box at the top and the ash catch below. “You push live coals to the back and add coals to the front,” she demonstrated. You must clean out the ash catch after cooking, she added.

The stove was new in 1930, but now the oven doesn’t seal well and Smith had to use a board to hold the door tightly shut. “If you want to bake, you open a lever so air will go around to the oven,” she explained.

In another historical house on the museum grounds at 845 N. Jefferson Ave., Port Allen, Collins was demonstrating how to cook on a cast-iron, wood-burning stove made in 1907 “when the Sears catalog had 30 pages of stoves,” she said. “The era of wood stoves ended between 1935 to 1945 because people were moving to the city and had electricity.”

She added that the Great Depression lasted from the Wall Street crash of 1929 until World War II, “although things were improving in 1935. The bottom had fallen out on agriculture because of droughts and bad weather.”

Getting back to the history of stoves, she said metal stoves were imported into the United States from Holland and England during the early 1800s, but by the 1840s, wood-burning stoves used for cooking, heating and laundry were being manufactured in America. Coal-burning stoves became available after the Civil War, which ended in 1865.

Americans heading west on wagon trains took along the same type of four-burner, “economy model” stove Collins demonstrated because it could be taken apart, she said, adding that the main part weighs 75 pounds. It also has an oven door on each side.

One needs proper equipment for cooking on a wood-burning stove, Collins and Smith said. Sturdy pots such as cast iron, enamel wear, heavy aluminum or stainless steel are best; “graniteware thin pots tended to scorch,” Collins said.

The fuel must be well-seasoned hardwood, split small and dried for at least three months after it is split.

To start a fire, the flue has to be completely open and all the stove-top’s covers must be on. “Waxed paper is a great fire starter. It was invented between 1835 to 1845,” Collins said. After placing paper, wood shavings and small pieces of wood on a rack in the firebox, use a match — never kerosene or charcoal lighter fluid — to light the paper, she continued.

“The stove will probably smoke a bit until the chimney is drafting,” she said. The fire has to burn for at least 30 minutes before either the oven or stove-top can be used for cooking. The cook also has to watch that the fire doesn’t get too intense. That could crack or warp the stove.

“My mother-in-law, who cooked on a wood stove as she was growing up, told me, ‘You gotta keep putting wood in it,’ ” Collins said. A box of split wood should be near by but not too close. If the temperature starts to cool, the cook should add one or two pieces of wood. The fire also needs air, she said; you close the draft door to “slow” the fire or open it to “hasten” the flames.

“The stove will get too hot if the heat doesn’t have something to do, so cooks would keep water on the stove,” she said.

Both Smith and Collins emphasized that a popular saying during the Great Depression was “use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.”

That’s why bread pudding was a popular dish then, Collins said as she checked on the bread pudding baking in the stove’s oven. “They didn’t waste anything. They set aside bread ends” to make the pudding.

Families also depended on gardening, hunting and canning to provide food on the table.

“Soup is a great way to make do,” Collins said as she added jars of preserved vegetables to the pot of her I Can, I Can, I Can Vegetable Soup.

She also kept her audience busy making butter. A glass jar holding room temperature cream was passed from class member to class member to shake. After about 15 minutes of shaking, they had butter.

In printed material the museum staff handed out to class members, Collins noted that “cooking or baking with wood requires a different rhythm and a different timing than cooking with gas or electricity. Most importantly, it requires learning how to adjust to the peculiarities of each individual stove — and that can be quite a challenge.”