Photo Courtesy of Georgeanne Brennan
It is assumed, I think, that all cookbook authors work on brushed stainless steel, state-of-the-art, six-burner precision ranges like those featured in the ads of glossy food magazines. Let me dispel the myth. I have written more than 20 cookbooks, and I can trace many of their origins back to two Spartan appliances: the first, a two-burner propane cook-top set over a retired charcoal braise in a French farmhouse; the second, a salvaged restaurant stove with replacement knobs and a slightly dented right side that my husband brought home in the mid 1980s, roped down in the back of his truck.
I did manage to upgrade about a decade and a half later, with the help of a modest royalty check. I bought a brand-new 6-burner professional range. It looked just like the old restaurant stove, big and blocky, but with insulation, a broiler, and no dents. I found it the height of luxury. It saw me through such tomes as Savoring France, The Essentials of French Cooking, and played its small, but important part in my memoir, A Pig in Provence.
I never gave much thought to improving on it. It seemed to me that it worked just fine, and I assumed that it would last forever, just like me. But a few months ago, after a soufflé that failed to rise rendered the special ingredients (eggs from my son's backyard chickens and a clutch of freshly gathered morels) nearly inedible, I started to rethink the situation.
My gorgeous Soupe de Poisson scorched and my favorite fat Italian beans burned. For someone whose mainstay is stovetop cooking, this was, I finally admitted, untenable.
Oven temperatures in the oven were off by 50 degrees; its hottest temperature seemed to be about 390 degrees; the infrared broiler--never its best feature, it turned out--died halfway through browning a trout last year; and, worst of all, the burner flames had become irregular, sending up blue then gold flames, high on one side, sputtering low on the other. Without a reliable simmer, my gorgeous Soupe de Poisson scorched and my favorite fat Italian beans burned. For someone whose mainstay is stovetop cooking, this was, I finally admitted, untenable.
However, I'm a faithful lover and wasn't going to cast aside my long-time companion and good friend without some serious counseling. I called a specialist in Viking repairs. He arrived on time, looking old enough to be competent and trained in the latest techniques but not so old as to be blasé about a woman's distress. I explained to him that I wrote cookbooks and how important it was to me to have everything on my range working properly.
He asked if I had a show on Food TV. When I said "No," he opened the oven, tested the broiler, tried out the burners, opened the bottom panel, and then closed it. Standing up, he put his tools away. "Sorry, lady, this thing is too old. There aren't any parts for it anymore. You gotta buy a new stove. Might even get you a TV show."
Yes, but could I really strike up a lasting romance with a brand new stove? One tricked out with brass and stainless steel? Was there a person lurking inside me who wore glamour like an old shoe, ready for love with a stranger? And, more practically, was this the economic moment for such an extravagance?
I plowed my doubt into cooking. I prepared a pot-au-feu, an economical stovetop dish I'd learned to make during the years I kept goats and pigs in Provence. I cleaned spring greens from my garden, braising them in olive oil, adding tender green garlic. I pan-fried pork chops with rice and simmered them (watching carefully for burning) with the last of my homemade Shady Lady tomato sauce from last summer's crop. I made some simple syrup to pour over sliced blood oranges from my trees. The old stove worked mightily to please me.
A week later a fateful email sailed into my inbox. Correction: two fateful emails. Reps at Wolf and La Cornu would like to offer me--the emails said, respectively--a "professional discount" on their stoves. Half price, they said, about $4,000 (or twice what my current stove had cost). Nothing like a deal to convince me I truly need something.
But, on the first night after the offer, I woke up with sweaty hands and a thumping heart at 3 a.m. I got out of bed, pulled on a pair of sweat pants and a sweater, made a cup of chamomile tea, turned on my computer and looked again at my options. There was the highly regarded, most-recommended by dealers, distributors, and consumers, 6-burner, 15,000 btu WOLF range with industrial red knobs and a cavernous gas oven--like my current range, but so new and efficient as to be practically unrecognizable as a relative; or, the glamorous CornuFé beckoning me with its shiny, dark green enamel, stainless trim, brass knobs and double electric ovens.
I returned to bed, finally, but a cooking matter of this magnitude does not sleep for long, and I was knee deep in crisis by the following morning as I leaned over a stack of Côté Sud, the French style magazine that embodies life and food in southern France. I have been collecting this magazine for fifteen years. When I can't be in Provence, Côté Sud is my replacement therapy. And, 19th century-style ranges like CornuFé seem to be featured on every other page in every issue.
This was the range I'd always imagined in the luxurious kitchen of the big house I would build someday from the crumbling ancient barns adjacent to the tiny warren in Provence I've owned since 1972. Once built, the house would sleep my daughter and her twins, my son and his children, their spouses, and the rest of my extended family. On my gorgeous stovetop I would cook meals for the 20 or so of us, everyday, just like my neighbors across the road have done for years, lingering over the meals while the children play. However, since I had to sell the barns last year, I won't be living out that fantasy.
But perhaps this was a second chance...
A month later, my husband picked up the dark green enamel CornuFé stove. We had the kitchen wired for 220 volts (the electric oven's requirement), and I splurged on a backsplash of beautiful cream tiles. My Le Creuset collection--orange, blue, green, yellow--stacked on open shelves, looks perfect beside it. Shortly after its arrival, on my birthday, I made Bracciole, simmered for hours with not even a moment's danger of scorching. (I can actually control the flames on my new stovetop.)
My grown children now ooh and ah, pulling open the double-door ovens, turning the brass knobs, and firing up the big 17,000 btu central burner. They are constantly making serving suggestions--pot of French onion soup, a giant ratatouille, braised lamb with wild mushrooms.
It is not Provence. But the scene here has almost everything else. A kitchen full of friends and family, a big potager garden, fruit trees, long tables inside and out, housemade pancetta, pickles, farmers cheese, and wine, plus a big, glorious, fancy stove. It appears that some glamour does fit like an old shoe. And I am tempted--on occasion--to sleep in the kitchen to stay close.