Fremont County, Iowa

Cooking with Grandma
by Emily Bengtson
View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
January 4, 2010

Cooking is a big part of my life. My love of cooking began when I was growing up staying at Grandma's house. I realize, now, how important the stove in the kitchen was to cooking and daily living. That range was so much bigger than today's stoves. It was probably twice the size of a four burner, 36-inch modern stove. It was a wood burning stove so there was a fuel box below the cooking surface. The top of the stove had two holes covered by iron disks. You lifted the disks to put in the fuel. The whole top of the stove was used for cooking. If you were baking, you put something like ham and beans to cook over the oven thus not wasting the heat coming up from inside.

On the right end at the back of the stove was a large container, a reservoir, for water. Above the stove were two warming compartments that kept foods warm and an oven below for baking.

The most delicate part of cooking was baking. A big gauge was on the oven door to show the temperature of the oven. My grandma had my sister and me collect the biggest corncobs and bring them into the kitchen for the stove. She used them to maintain the temperature for baking. If it was an angel food cake, it was my job to watch the gauge and, if it went below 350 degrees, I added ten corncobs. Those cobs would bring it up to just the right temperature and hold it for a while, and then I would have to add another ten cobs.

While I only remember baking the angel food cake, I am sure we did the same procedure in maintaining even temperature for all the baking. What I find amazing today is my grandma knew how many cobs to use to hold the temperature. It always seemed to work yet no 10 cobs were ever the exact size of any other ten.

When we were not cooking, the stove was still working for us. The reservoir was kept full of water. When you did the dishes, washed the clothes, or took a bath, that is where you went for hot water. I remember it was a large container but today I am not sure how much water was really heated there.

In the winter, the coals were never allowed to go out. They would burn down to a red glow by the morning but someone would add a few sticks of wood and the blaze would be back. The kitchen was warm because of the stove.

In the summer, the stove was a source of unwanted heat, but there was no getting around it because you needed it to cook. Unlike the South, where so many of the homes had a separate summer kitchen, the answer here in Iowa was a double door kept shut between the living room and kitchen. The door kept the heat in the kitchen. Two big screen doors and open windows in Grandma's house kept the kitchen bearable.

I am glad I have a modern gas range in my kitchen, and air conditioning to keep it cool in the summer, but it is fun to think back to those days with the big wood range at Grandma's.


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