Some reminders of the past are just too difficult to let go


In the ongoing challenge of downsizing, once again I have come face to face with two things I may never get rid of.

They are the fireless cookers that stand out like red flags every time I use the old downsizing rule: If you haven’t used something or worn something in a year, get rid of it. Well, I have never used these two cherished family heirlooms, but I have stored them for at least 50 years with as much devotion as some might cherish diamonds and furs.

No matter where I lived during that half century, I always knew where the antique cookers were in the garage or basement. Every few months I checked on them to be sure they were still safe and sound as if anyone would be interested in taking the mysterious looking chests that require two people to carry.

The larger cooker is oak and was my mother’s. The smaller one is stainless steel and was Aunt Bertha’s. Food from either one was wonderfully juicy and tender because it was cooked for hours in the insulated chest.

Yes, my treasures were the first slow cookers. They were kept in the basement because a coal furnace was essential to their operation.

Each of the two wells inside the larger cooker is equipped with soapstone that fits snugly in the bottom of the well. Aunt Bertha’s unit only has one well and soapstone. Using tongs, mother removed the soapstone from the cooker and tossed it into the roaring fire in the coal furnace.

When she deemed it was red hot enough she removed it from the furnace with the same tongs and dropped it into the well.

In the meantime the meat and vegetables for our supper were prepared and placed in kettles that fit tightly in the well and had tight clamp-on lids. Then the heavy chest lid was clamped shut and many hours later supper was cooked to perfection and fragrant steam emitted from tiny holes in the lid.

I can nearly taste the roast beef that came from the cooker and the potatoes and vegetables that cooked in the second well. She also cooked whole chickens and soups and stews, but none of the strange combinations that we see in today’s slow cooker cookbooks. Ours was straightforward food that I still prefer.

My guess is that the food was put into the cooker about 7 a.m. and taken out about 6 o’clock, after Mother got home from work, and I had done my homework.

Fireless cookers were popular in the 1900s to save fuel and labor, but in our case the convenience of a complete meal being cooked when we got home was important. The first fireless cookers were called hay boxes because hay, or straw, was used in the insulation. Later models used asbestos. The Toledo Cooker Co. was prominent in the manufacture of fireless cookers and in 1918 introduced a new model with a built-in heating unit.

After being stored overhead in the garage at the Posey Lake farmhouse for 24 years, the old cookers were moved to the sun porch in my downsizing effort. It’s time, I reasoned.

The helper who moved them was so fascinated with the large cooker, he wiped off the dust, and suggested, “Let’s try it.” Without a coal furnace the cookers are about as useless as a gas lamp.

Heating the soapstone poses interesting questions. A gas furnace is impossible and I doubt the stone would heat sufficiently on a charcoal grill. I suppose a bonfire is one answer, but I have lost the tongs. A high temperature oven might work.

But, all of the above just wouldn’t be the same as it was back in the day. The food couldn’t possibly be as good as it was when Mother fired up the old furnace and heated the soapstone to cook our supper the fireless, nonelectric way in what really were the good old days.

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.

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