Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Midget Stove

Photo courtesy Flickr

One low-tech summer at the beach, I imprinted on a tiny yachting stove that perched on a brick plinth in a cabin, ready to turn out a meal over virtual twigs or to be shifted to the galley in the owner’s boat. Later, a friend told me she fed her version of that stove on cookies split from sawdust logs.

At the height of the Sixties, a hippie girl taught me how to wish. Some years later, the yachting stove provoked the conscious, deliberate, visualized, and vocalized wish to have something similar. A few days later, the in-house archaeologist humped home $3.50 and twenty-five pounds’ worth of cast iron tent stove, about a foot and a half wide and a foot deep, standing around fifteen inches tall on art nouveau legs.

Fired up in a non-combustible section of the back yard, that stove sears a mean stir fry over a raging cauldron of alder coals. Groomed and polished with stove blacking, it’s a rustic play on the mediocre chafing dishes that clutter the shelves of its home thrift shop. The service wall of my ancient dining area has no electrical outlet, and off-grid formalities of the past like candlesticks and a warming surface gentle the brisk pace of a productive urban live/work set-up. Real flame sweetens the atmosphere close to the cooking area and enriches the mix of carbon-filament incandescence and video screen that illuminates the room. Most of the time, the stove sits on a side table sans chimney. I fuel it with tea lights or solid alcohol on chilly winter afternoons and keep a welcoming pot of coffee or tea ready for whomever arrives at the end of the day. Caterer’s solid alcohol fuel burns hot enough to allow frying over the stove, and usually I park a rectangular cast-iron griddle on the top to add to the heat sink and pretty up the cooking surface.

I dearly love cast iron, but what I really dearly love are the carved wooden molds from which iron is cast. Some months ago, I ran across the web site of a San Juan foundry that makes elegant multi-fuel yachting stoves. $2k will get me a great deal of stove that measures about fourteen inches in each dimension. Such a stove would make a fine wedding gift, prepare a new family for any cooking exigency, and I would just about be willing to bet on its resale value. Just about.

In the meantime, the old line mom and apple pie cast iron cookware outfit is making a hibachi that’s nearly as serviceable as the thrift shop midget. The proportions are low and stable, it looks as if the griddle would fit nicely, and it’s tempting to consider whether a flyweight hiker’s butane rig could be adapted to fuel the grill. In a perfect world, the manufacturer would offer a solid top with the standardized burner plates that fit its numbered cast iron frying pans. 

The hibachi is designed for solid fuel, but I have found that tea lights and canned heat are trivial to adapt for warming. The legs look a little short to set on a wooden tabletop, but that would be easy to finesse with bricks or tiles. It’s deeply comforting to know I have something to cook on no matter what the state of the electrical or oil supply.


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