Consider the Oven
Photograph by Sheryl Cornett"Picture this," I say across the phone line to my sister Judy in Tennessee. "Now they're shimmying it down that ramp made out of an old ladder." My son, Christopher, has backed his Ford F150 into the garage and assembled a segue from the truck bed to the concrete floor. He and my husband, Jim, maneuver a duel-fuel range with multimodal convection oven down the makeshift ramp. It took a forklift to load this beast into the Ford.
"Can you see what it looks like yet?" Judy asks.
"No, no. It's surrounded by shrink-wrapped cardboard."
"Well, tell them to hurry up," Judy plays her faux-impatient voice, the one I adore. It matches my own eagerness to see.
Hazel-eyed Christopher resembles a combo of my Texas grandmothers and his biological dad. His blond hair is cut close in a military crew and he looks, as he digs into his cargo shorts for a pocketknife, too young to be the father of three sons. I watch his work-strong, compact hands slit first the inches-thick protective wrap, which Jim holds taut away from the appliance's metal, then the layers of cardboard to the Styrofoam encasement.
"Well?" Judy says as if she were right there watching. I say nothing because Christopher invites me to complete the unveiling, and I yank away the wrappings. Startled, I stare into the face of the stove; a giant iPhone stares back at me.
I tell this to Judy. "It's about waist-high, shiny black and stainless steel, and has more touch screen computer options than my cranky laptop."
"Lord have mercy," she says. "Will you ever figure out how to use it?"
We laugh down the phone lines from Chapel Hill to Oak Ridge at the fact that I'm the least tech-savvy person in all branches of the family.
* * *
We're celebrating big time. The all-singing, all-dancing gas range/convection-electric oven retails for three times my monthly take-home pay; it marks the end of five years without a working oven in my kitchen. This beauty is courtesy of my Texas brother-in-law, Ronald, who is a rep and dealer for a major top-shelf appliance company. He had got hold of the rangeafter replacing it in a McMansionbecause it failed its final inspection: a loose screw kept the oven light from going off when it wasn't in use. Brother Ronald, ever the creative problem-solver, says he fixed it with a simple welding job and better-fitting screw. Then he shipped it to me in North Carolina: be sure to have a fork lifthandy for delivery, he advised in his e-mail. The install took two days and four strong men plus several saws and drills. Clouds of sawdust flew into every nook and cranny; months later, I’m still discovering the fine shavings.
Once the range is fully working, I fix a pan of cornbread and, nervously, tuck it into the hot air-blowing oven to bake. For so long, I have been traipsing out to my garage to bake such a simple part of a simple meal. Now, I stand in front of a restaurant-caliber wonder with numerous touch screen commands (Sabbath Mode anyone? IE: no cooking on Shabbat). I open the oven door—to the ring tone of wind chimes and the sight of three heavy-metal rolling racks—inhaling the hot scent of buttery cornmeal as it bakes. Next, I sautéCarolina crab cakes and steam local winter greens to serve alongside. A Chardonnay chills in the fridge. How amazing that this black and brushed stainless-steel range doesn't dwarf our 1960s box kitchen! Though when people walk in and see the new member of the family for the first time, they tend to say things like Whoa, that's a serious stove.
Within fifteen minutes of starting to sauté, I scorch myself in two soon-blistering places from the serious stovetop's cast iron grid-racks—the ones that guard her jewel-blue flames.
No matter. I hardly notice the searing pain. WUNC Radio’s Back Porch Music plays on the radio. I push kale and spinach around in garlic-olive oil and find myself singing "May the Circle Be Unbroken" along with the Carter Family. I stare into the flame, giving thanks.
* * *
Perhaps I took a dark pleasure in the long wait for a fully working range. Perhaps I relished the distraction and solitude standing over the garage stove gave me — the cover it provided for my embarrassment that I couldn’t fix the problem with a repair or a replacement in spite of teaching overloads and moonlighting jobs.
The challenge of garage cooking for a family on a tight budget and testing recipes for a regular Farm-to-Table newspaper column I was writing at the time was, well, sort of a shadowy thrill. I come from a long line of women who make do: use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. Both of my grandmothers were born at the start of the 20th century, and were Texas Panhandle housewives back when that territory was still a frontier of sorts (in spite of cattle and oil money). Both used ringer washing machines until the 1970s. I watched, on my bi-annual visits from Virginia to Texas, countless loads of cotton sheets and pillowcases slide through creaking rollers to land in a wicker basket. They were then hung, with me begging to help, on the outdoor clothesline to flap dry in the prairie wind, the hot sun calling forth the scent of wet Ivory soap flakes, a milky sweet smell of coconut and, oddly, melting tallow candles.
I felt the same awe then as I've felt these past five years when putting a cast iron skillet of cornbread batter to bake in my not-up-to-code garage oven. I can still see myself —in madras sundresses on hundred-degree days, or in a bulky down jacket during an ice storm—pulling bread or muffins or biscuits from the heat. In these moments, I am surrounded by cast-off furniture, giveaway books, a lone axle rod from my son Matthew's car repair projects. The baking fragrance mixes with smells of lawn mower oil, split oak firewood, and the resin of pinecones we use for kindling.
The truth is I like it out there where it's dim and quiet and hides my embarrassment at this extreme form of making do. Sometimes I still cook out there, even though I love my all-singing, all-dancing range. I can relate to the men I've known for whom a garage is a man-cave haven — a place to tinker and think and consider the old words about the lilies and how they grow and practice not worrying about tomorrow for today has enough, to pray through job applications and inadequate health insurance, to contemplate and release the shame I feel over not providing better for my family in spite of the long hours I work. Standing at the jerry-rigged cooker in my outdoor kitchen — how posh that sounds — I see into the forest of our rural-buffer neighborhood, watch sheets billowing on the lines, and listen to the sigh of pines or thunderstorms come and go. Back Porch Music keeps me company. I am away, for the moment, from the temptation to absorb my husband’s depression into my own soul, his suffering another thing that I cannot fix or change.
My present oven's arrival is complicated: the elation over this range's abilities brings up a little sadness. What's taking so long, Sheryl? You write a cooking column for God's sake. You need a working stove, indoors. This was a line I heard often from well-meaning friends who really didn't know the full reason. We would laugh and joke about hard times, and dinner guests would follow me, shaking their heads, out into the garage where I checked on a pan of manicotti or homemade pizza. If it were me, one close friend said, it would be take-out Chinese all the way. I changed the subject by showing the friend how Christopher, who had trained as an electrician in the U.S. Navy, had tapped into the garage-wiring of our clothes dryer's 220 voltage to hook up a freight-damaged freestanding electric stove (another gift from Ronald, a cooker that wouldn't fit in the box kitchen’s allotted space but that would tide us over after the 1960s stove first conked out).
The catch? We couldn't run the dryer and the garage stove at the same time, without tripping all the main breakers in the house. But, no problem. My clothesline training in the Texas Panhandle came in handy here in North Carolina: we strung up lines between two oaks in our Chapel Hill side yard.
The reason I didn't buy a stove on credit during this five-year period is because, in addition to financial divorce-recovery, one of my daughters and my new husband had chronic health problems, resulting in chronic co-pays. My husband's ex-wife slammed him with false legal charges—which he was cleared of but not without devastating court and attorney fees. This situation sent him into a deep depression through which he was unable to work for three years. I was sole breadwinner during this time, teaching college English at adjunct-level pay, working as a freelance journalist and as a food writer for a regional weekly, and moonlighting in the catering world.
The math was simple. No room in the budget—or on credit cards—for a new range.
Not even for a new-old range.
And yet, this is not as bad as it sounds. During the economic downturn that began in 2008, and from which North Carolina is still recovering, I knew many businesses that suffered and people who were out of work or underemployed. I had friends whose homes were lost or devalued, whose lines of credit and home equity were maxed out or reduced. No one I knew, it seemed, was left unscathed, and as general as the recession was, it was also particular to me. In fact, emotionally oppressivecombined with my spouse's depression. But in the grand scheme of things, and in light of crazy ongoing wars, tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns, school shootings (to name a few), having to bake birthday cakes that often came out lopsided (due to an uneven garage floor) or testing recipes for the Farm-to-Table "Locavore Cooking" column seemed like creative luxury, a chance to put my sadness and powerless into to the oven, releasing it to burn up at four hundred degrees withthe cornbread. Even in the garage. Even in freezing winter or scorching humid summer. Make it do or do without.
* * *
The new range arrives on an unseasonably warm winter day. In the garage, I watch Christopher and Jim shimmy it down the Ford's ramp. On the phone again with my sister, I'm standing where I can see beyond the house to the clothesline and consider the winter trees' shapes against the expanse of sky that arches over our three acres. We are several miles from town out here in the rural buffer, on the edge of Duke Forest. You can't see any other of the fifteen houses on our cul-de-sac, all of them on three- to five-acre lots. I hear tree frogs this balmy January day and smell mud and soggy grass from where rain has pooled again and again on itself over the last month: a swampy yard where the shady landscape keeps trying to return to its native self, a pine and hardwood forest.
With a final heave and push, the beast is down the ramp and out of the truck bed.
Christopher and Jim now discuss how to get the 400-pound appliance into the house without a hand-truck. I'm more in the way than of any real help, but I hover anyway and make too many suggestions. I did the same thing earlier in the day when a good old boy from Southern States Cooperative drilled through the box kitchen's floor to the crawlspace under the house and laid the lines to a new propane tank. The look on the old boy's face revealed his bewilderment as he dialed headquarters: Randy, he sighed with something like a whistle, I got to have some help here on this job in Chapel Hill. Don't believe I've ever seen a range as big as this one. When Randy walks in the house he is singing—for real—May the circle be unbroken.
* * *
“Go put some aloe gel on your blisters,”Judy says as we end another phone call. “I’m hoping for a gourmet meal next time we’re in town.”
“Oh, you’ll get that, no worries,”I tell her as the range’s timer chimes to tell me the cornbread is done. I remove it from the oven, and slather butter on top. Then I dish up the crab cakes and greens. As I apply salve to the blisters, June Carter Cash's song petitions the circle to be unbroken in her Southern-honey voice. We light the candles and sit down to supper. We consider the gift-oven's miraculous powers and presence — gifts I did not give us by “fixing”the situation, but which came to us through the generosity of others. We give thanks for Brother-Ronald, for Jim's new career in high school teaching, for new meds prescribed to loved ones, for Christopher’s time and talent and creative installation-energies, for the full but sometimes brokencircle of making do in the company of each other, for those grandmothers who have gone before us and set the example, for those who consider the lilies and worry not for tomorrow.