Thursday, October 11, 2007
A Prince in the Kitchen
I met my Prince about this time last year, when I lived in a shack up in Sparta. Not that Sparta; it's a Sparta known to just a handful of ranchers, hunters, and soul-searching recent college graduates. Like all good monarchs, the Prince of Sparta established his own standard of measurement: degrees 1 through 12. 12 is roughly comparable to 600 degrees Fahrenheit on the international markets.
I miss him. He kept me warm at least half the night, cooked my dinners, and only smoked occasionally when I hadn't got him stoked to a roaring blaze. A capricious lover, but a dear one. I sketched his likeness on a grocery bag and it hangs in my dining room still.
Coaxing a breakfast fire from the Prince began with assessing the temperature of the room by the density of the cats' breath-clouds, to know just how fast to run for the outhouse. Then I'd toss the ice block out of the cats' water dish, haul liquid water from the trickle of a spring, split kindling, and start stacking the firebox in that old ritual progression from pine cones to fence posts: close vents here open there, blow through the cracks cajole cajole curse light another match, etc....
One night a visiting German couple invited us over for dinner. The oil lamps were burning as we sat down to fresh walnut bread, buttery shrimp pasta, and perpetually full glasses of wine. "I read," said Hilde, a retired professor of painting, "that woodstoves produced the best flavor in double-blind taste tests." There is something crisp, pure, and wholesome-tasting about woodstove cookery. And a woodfired oven is the original convected breadbaking heaven.
My aunt taught me to gauge oven temperature by hand in her woodstove, which had no thermometer, degrees Prince or otherwise. I was caught off-guard the first time she asked, "does it feel like cookie-temperature?" but I realized that with a bit of focus, it wasn't hard to tell whether the heat would scorch the tender dough or leave it pale and raw. She didn't have measuring cups, either. "I had the whole 1950's home-ec training," she told me, "but I moved out here and cut my hair and saw that measuring cups meant more washing, too."
For Christmas, I made my aunt & uncle origami boxes out of the glossy pages of my alumni bulletin, and then the Prince and I filled them with six dozen dark chocolate truffles -- from kindling to cream.