By Gail Thomas Strong, Director of Outreach and Learning Services, WFYI
My grandmother, like many grandmas, was a great cook. Sunday dinners were standard meat and potatoes, and the number of chairs around the table would change each week as she invited others to join us after church. For me, that was a treat, because I only got to see her in the summer, so it meant I would also see cousins and friends, too.
Part of the magic of her meals was that she cooked on a coal stove. Her home was in Wilkes-Barre, PA, where coal was plentiful, and yet, I suspect that in the 1960’s, there weren’t many of those magnificent stoves in operation. For a kid growing up in Motown, having to take the coal scuttle to the coal bin in the morning and haul up coal was the best job in the world. Using the special tools to raise the burners, spinning the door lock shut, or peeking in the warming oven where the flat irons were stored was all part of the aura. I grew up knowing that if were we to bake, we’d need to get up early before the house got hot and await fresh eggs from the milkman, and that damping the fire at night was important. We’d make jam from all the raspberries in her yard, protect the sour cherries from the birds, and be pretty excited when the man who picked huckleberries on the mountain would bring them door to door in town each summer. That meant tasty muffins and cobbler. There were also those special days when we’d make “miner’s food” – pasties and Welsh cookies. To this day, these foods bring comfort and such rich memories. I have the book she wrote her recipes in, complete with handfuls of this and thimblefuls of that.
As she aged and my grandfather became less mobile, we insisted she give up her coal stove. She reluctantly agreed, and put a small gas stove alongside it. It was a big concession, and she needed to learn to cook all over again. The slower pace of the coal stove was a time to share stories and talk about the how-to’s of cooking — measuring, alternating liquids and solids, and the way to make the perfect iced tea. She was my teacher, the teller of tales, and the one who listened so unconditionally as we rolled our dough. It was clear that food was a labor, but it was also a gift and sustained in a way that was stronger and more powerful than I experienced in other places.
The stove is still there, in pieces in the cellar after a kitchen remodeling 20 years ago. My uncle lives in that house, yet when I see the kitchen, it remains the one of my childhood. And the flatirons I used are on my hearth.