The Comfort of a Wood Stove
One of the reasons I write historical novels is that I love research, especially finding out about the details of everyday life in earlier times – what people wore, what they ate, how they did the ordinary chores of living without all the labor-saving devices we take for granted. Like our convenient, easily regulated gas and electric ranges.
My grandmothers learned to cook and bake with wood ranges, and for several years my parents used one at their cottage. The best Christmas turkey I’ve ever eaten was roasted in the oven of that old cast-iron Enterprise. In my opinion, Victorian wood stoves are a satisfying combination of practicality and beauty, and I’m not alone, if the expensive replicas now available are any indication.
In nineteenth-century rural North America, the wood stove was the heart of the home. It heated the house. Lines strung above it held drying laundry. A boiler on the back provided hot water. A warming oven kept food hot, and could also be used to save the life of a newborn lamb, puppy or kitten suffering from exposure.
Managing a wood range is an art, especially for baking. Young girls learned from their mothers how to select wood (hardwood, not soft) and how to stoke the stove to produce an even heat. There’s a lovely little folksong by Prince Edward Island’s Lennie Gallant that gives the gist of it: “Yellow birch and spruce so red, and juniper to bake good bread; hard maple when the flame’s in doubt, cedar when the coals die out.” A handful of flour thrown into the oven was used to gauge temperature. If it browned right away, the oven was hot. Many a batch of burned bread and doughy biscuits paved the way to mastery.
In my recently released historical Western, McShannon’s Chance, the heroine, Beth, is an inexperienced cook who’s never dealt with a wood stove. Here’s what happens when she bakes her first batch of bread. This scene was inspired by a real-life incident recorded in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals.
When her bread dough looked and felt right, Beth left it to rise and went to bed. She got up in the middle of the night, punched it down and put it in the pans, then got up again just before sunrise. Wonderful, the loaves looked perfect, high and round.
She’d added wood to the stove earlier. When she threw a pinch of flour in the oven it browned right away. Too hot. Half asleep, Beth lifted a grate and poured water from the kettle onto the fire.
The rush of ashes and steam knocked her flat on her back as the grate she’d just replaced flew across the room. It crashed into the wall a couple of feet from Trey’s head. Jerked out of a sound sleep, he lunged upright and let out a few well-chosen words as Beth scrambled up from the floor.
“What the hell are you doing, trying to blow the place up?”
Beth dusted herself off and tried to muster some dignity. “I needed to cool off the oven, so I poured a little water on the fire.”
He shook his head in disbelief. “You poured—For Chrissake, Beth, you’re lucky the stove didn’t explode and kill us both. Did you get scalded?”
Beth felt her face. No burns, only a scorching blush.
“No, but you nearly got scalped.” She crossed the room and gingerly picked up the stray grate with a potholder. Trey’s eyes opened wide.
“Looks like it.” He ran a hand through his hair and glanced at her again, a bit shame-faced. “Sorry for the language. I don’t worry about it much when no one’s around.”
“Well, I don’t blame you,” Beth muttered. She cast a sheepish look at the bread pans on the dresser. “I guess I’ll put the bread in now.”
Even in the dim light she could see his smirk. “You might want to look in the mirror first.”
Beth grimaced at her sooty reflection. Grumbling under her breath, she grabbed a towel and a basin. Still grinning, Trey settled down to go back to sleep. Well, she told herself as she scrubbed, at least they’d have fresh bread for breakfast.