by Roger Chapman
Apart from the carpet, the stove is the oldest inhabitant of our house. It was here when we arrived fifteen years ago and it’s dominated my culinary life ever since. At first I liked the novelty of cooking on a hob the size of a small airfield. It was an imposing presence: six burners powered by a nine-kilo gas bottle which filled our largest kitchen cupboard. The oven itself was so wide and deep that it was difficult to make out the back of it, even with the lights on. The array of clocks, dials and buzzers told me whatever I wanted to know (except, as I discovered, how long it took to cook anything).
Perhaps it’s unwise to anthropomorphise one’s appliances; at the time it seemed a reasonable way of fostering good relations. Unsure what gender the stove was, I settled on a safely androgynous name—Casey—without giving much thought to the stove’s opinion. In retrospect maybe not a good choice, but it’s too late for regrets now.
I’m no Luddite, but there’s no concealing the mutual antipathy which household appliances (especially those residing in the kitchen) and I harbour towards each other. Their paramount agenda is to make me look foolish and only incidentally—and grudgingly—to perform their assigned tasks. This applies to dishwashers, toasters and the like, but it took me some time to realise that Casey was an ally of theirs.
There were early signs that stove management might not be straightforward when the manual, thoughtfully left by the previous owner, proved to have been translated from Italian by someone unconversant with English idiom. Then I found there was no warning when the gas was about to run out: the flame simply died in mid-omelette.
It took me longer to work out that Casey’s oven had an irremediable problem: its south-western quadrant was distinctly hotter than the north-east. This emerged only when one thigh of the supposedly roast chicken was still a vivid pink while the other was fully cooked, and when the Christmas cake turned out underdone on one side. I could counter this by rotating the dish/tin 180 degrees halfway through the cooking—if I remembered, which I seldom did.
Yet these were minor inconveniences, mildly irritating but part of the ever-evolving fabric of kitchen life. The first indication of serious trouble didn’t emerge for a year or so, when the gas pressure began to drop. Before long, I found I could set a pot of water on the hob, then shave, shower and dress before it boiled.
I called Reg the gasfitter.
‘It’ll be the regulator,’ he said.
I won’t attempt to reproduce his explanation. The only part I understood was that I’d need a new one. And, by the way, the gas bottle would have to be moved outside, with a connecting hose piercing the wall linings and the weatherboards. New regulations, he said.
‘While you’re here, Reg, one of the burners isn’t working.’
He twiddled a few knobs.
‘Looks like the igniter’s stuffed. Happens with these old stoves.’
‘Old? How old?’
‘Twelve, fourteen years, maybe. Nothing I can do. Can’t get the parts anymore.’
By the time Reg left, I had a useless burner, a hole in the wall, and not much else to show for his visit—though, admittedly, if I wanted to get back to the kitchen before the water boiled, I’d now have to shave and shower a lot faster.
Next day, the light bulb at the back of Casey’s cavernous interior failed. I had to put up with cooking in the Black Hole of Wellington for the fortnight it took me to buy a replacement. Which lasted three days. Followed in short order by the demise of a second burner. A third of the hob was now useless and I needed a torch to penetrate the darkness below.
But Casey wasn’t finished with me yet. Torchlight revealed a caking of thick black gunge on the cavity roof. As I’m sure you know, to clean the back of an oven you need to remove the door. Or grow longer arms. Whereas the door had previously yielded without fuss, it now firmly declined to budge.
I politely requested Casey to stop messing about. Nothing happened.
I raised my voice. Nothing.
I shouted and swore. Still nothing.
Twenty minutes later, after taking a break to consider how to extend my arms half a metre or so, I succeeded in wrenching the door free. It didn’t seem like a victory.
Once, removing the door had been easy. Refitting it after the ritual purification had been a more delicate operation, calling for surgeon-like precision and a look of intense concentration; otherwise it wouldn’t close correctly. But it wasn’t all that taxing and I wasn’t expecting anything to go wrong.
I’m not certain how long I struggled. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get the door both level and closed. One or the other. But not both.
After half an hour I settled for the closed-but-lopsided look. Which is how matters remain. At least I can still use the oven, although hot air (and sometimes smoke) issues from the top right of the door. Each time I close it, metal graunches on metal. Occasionally a screw or washer falls to the floor, but I don’t know where they’re from or how to put them back. I’d probably have to remove the door again…
I’m cutting my losses. I’ve ordered a new all-electric job. It should be here next week. Then I won’t have to worry about running out of gas ever again. Meanwhile, I gently coax Casey along, occasionally adjusting a knob or relighting a burner, hoping the old contraption will make it through the next week—much as you would provide palliative care to a dying relative.
That’s why I’m sitting beside Casey right now, watching tonight’s casserole cook—and wondering when the door’s going to fall off.
Born in London, Roger Chapman counts himself lucky to have survived the twin hazards of wartime rationing and post-war British food. Only his parents’ decision to emigrate to New Zealand in the 1950s saved him from lifelong indigestion. After 45 years practising law, he abandoned the courtroom for the kitchen: since then he’s tried unsuccessfully to improve his cooking and confront the malice of his kitchen appliances. His blog The Erratic Cook at theerraticcook.substack.com documents some of his numerous culinary debacles.