Hosts Kami Ahrens and TJ Smith indulge in their love of cast iron and wood stove cooking! Featuring interviews from Addie Norton, Lola Cannon, Bessie Underwood, and Sharon Stiles, this episode looks at cooking before electricity and gas and introduces you to the upcoming revised edition of the Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery. Grab yourself some fried chicken and settle down to listen to this podcast on all things cooking!

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Home Comfort wood stove.

“Granny” Mary Cabe in front of her wood stove.


Interview Transcriptions:

Addie Norton

Foxfire (FF): I guess you like cooking on the wood stove, don’t ya?

Addie Norton (AN): I really do, I don’t like electric stoves. I’d burn up everything I’d try to cook, or do something to it if it wasn’t right…

FF: How do you keep a wood stove from getting too hot?

AN: Well, you just don’t put in too much wood. Now I can go in there and fill that thing just full of that oak wood, and it won’t be too long before it’ll be so hot it’ll burn your biscuits before you get ’em in there, almost! (laughs) And they don’t cook good, you know. I love just a moderate heat for biscuits and things like that, that I cook on the inside. A cake, now, you put in a cake, I get–it’s got a little old gauge on it–and I can tell what the temperature is. I get it up to about 300 or 350, and, when I put in my cake, sometimes near 400. About 350 is usually the best way, the best temperature. And then I’ll put my cake in, and then I’ll put in one or two little sticks of wood every once in a while, just enough to keep it the same heat. And it’ll cook the cake just as pretty as you please. It’s a pleasure to me, of course I have to keep wood, but it’s no harder than the electricity and so, after all…and I’m old. I’m forgetful. That’s one reason why I didn’t want one after I got older, I thought. There’s been electric stoves; back when I was young, I would’ve wanted one. But you see, if I put a fire in that, and go on out of the house, it’s not a’goin’ to get no hotter, it’s goin’ to get cooler. That’s goin’ to burn up, and it’s not goin’ to hurt nothin’. But if I go out and happen to leave the heat on, the electric stove on, why I’m liable to catch the house a’fire or somethin’ like that. I’m afraid to risk my own judgement about things like that. You know when you get as old as I am, you get forgetful honey.

FF: What kind of mistakes did you make when you first started cooking on the stove?

AN: I made lots of ’em honey.

FF: What did you do?

AN: Well, I tell you what, me and my daddy went back home to stay and to live, when I lived with my daddy, and so he’d be gone of a day, and I wanted to learn to cook. Well I’d hunt me up a recipe in the paper or somethin’ or other, and I’d try it out. But you know what, if it didn’t do just right, I’d put it in the slop bucket and feed it to the hogs before he got back! (laughter) Now that’s the reason, that’s the way I learned to cook. If my daddy’d a found that out, he’d have whipped the ___ out of me. Yeah, when it didn’t turn out to my notion, I just put it in the slop bucket, you know, and went and said, well we always had the hogs, so I’d just go and feed it to the hogs. Dad never knew it. I guess he thought lots of times the sugar gets out awful quick. (laughter) But I really wanted to learn, I made lots of mistakes before I learned to cook, I sure did. I made many a one. Anybody else has to do just like I did, come up from nothin’. Just by myself, and nobody to tell me how to do nothin’, you know. I just had to learn it. All I know about cookin’ I got it myself. Nobody didn’t teach me, because I didn’t have nobody to teach me. My mother was gone. Sometimes my aunts would come, they’d stay two or three days. And they’d show me, sometimes, little things, but mostly I’m a self-made cook. Can’t do much now, though, I…

FF: And when did you start cooking on a wood stove?

AN: I cooked on a wood stove all my life honey, I started a’cookin’ on a wood stove…now we didn’t have a wood stove when I can remember, when I first remember. My mother cooked on a fireplace and an old oven, and pans and things like that. She cooked on the fireplace. Did you ever see anybody cook on the fireplace?

FF: Huh-uh

AN: You know, I’ve cooked on a fireplace a lot of times. I cooked on the fireplace after my mother died. We went back home, and we didn’t have a stove. But I can remember the first stove that we ever had. It was a little number seven, about so big you know. Little bitty one. That’s the first one we ever had. And I thought it was the wonderfullest thing to have a stove to cook on and not have to cook on the fireplace. But I can ___ back when I was a child. See, my mother died when I was 13 years old and–between 12 and 13–and I just absolutely never had anything like that, you know. And I had to do, and I come back home with my daddy then and, after she died, we stayed away from home for a year. I came back when I was between 14 and 15 years old, went to cooking and doing everything for myself. And I had to learn a lot of things. You don’t know what about what hard times is.

Lola Cannon

Lola Cannon (LC): But it did have a lot of disadvantages.

FF: What would be some of them? Gettin’ the wood in and stuff like that?

LC: Well that was a problem in those days, having the proper wood. Wood stoves were fine, and we still think, we oldsters still think that the food had a better flavor than it does because it…maybe it’s our idea, but we think that it had a better flavor. And now, the food is cooked quicker and with less heat over the stove, but I still prefer a wood stove, a good size wood stove for canning.

FF: How can you get the temperature right to cook on ’em?

LC: Well, it would be hard now for you. It would be hard. But it wasn’t for the cooks in those days, they learned to test it. My mother used to stick a piece of writing paper inside her stove, and she could tell by the time it browned–the time it took to brown it, whether it was ready for whatever type of cooking she wanted. For cornbread, of course, it took a little hotter stove than for a biscuit or cake.

FF: What would it do to that paper she put in it?

LC: It would gradually brown, and then it would burn. So that’s too hot to put your food in.

FF: What would happen if you got the stove too hot? How would you cool it off?

LC: You mean if the stove got too hot? Well there was always a damper adjustment to the stove, which would cut down on it. And as you learned to cook, you learned just how much draft to have to make your wood burn briskly and bring up a good heat. And if you wanted a slower heat, you could cut down the draft and put in less wood. It’s a sort of learn-as-you-go cooking, just as it is, just as you all learn.

Bessie Underwood

FF: Did they taste better cooked on a wood stove?

Bessie Underwood (BU): Well, most everybody says so. They said that cornbread is better, ‘course people today don’t eat cornbread like when I was raised up. Cornbread and biscuits are better baked in the wood stove.

FF: Do you think they are?

BU: Well, I like the cornbread and I liked, uh, the green beans cooked on the wood stove. ‘Specially–I don’t know whether it was the wood stove or those iron pots and pans, you know.

FF: Yeah.

BU: They were thick and, uh, just really good.

FF: Did you ever get burnt real bad cookin’?

BU: Yes ma’am.

FF: Really? What happened? Tell us about it.

BU: Well I, uh, started, I guess it was my fault gettin’ burnt. I started to pick up a boiler that had a handle on it and it turned and burnt me all up my arm.

FF: Did you go to the doctor?

BU: No.

FF: Just bandaged it?

BU: I put mayonnaise on it. Mayonnaise is awfully good to put on burns.

FF: Okay, you know when you’re cookin’ on a woodstove, uh, how do you go about cookin’ something? What do you put in like your fried tomatoes or something?

BU: Well you just put your skillet on and your seasoning, whatever you use to cook with, and you can tell when it’s hot enough to put it in. Just cook it like any other cookin’.

FF: When did you start cookin’? How old was ya?

BU: About sixteen. Momma never would let us girls cook, she was afraid we’d waste something.

FF: Well, did you ever, like, when you’re puttin’ wood in the wood stove, have like coals and stuff fall out and burn the floor?

BU: Well, yes, I’ve had them fall out but I always noticed it and didn’t burn the floor. But it can very easily be done.

FF: Would it take it long to burn the floor?

BU: Well, no, not too long. You know, those hot coals will burn a hole pretty quick.

FF: What kind of wood would you use to start the fire in the wood stove? Pine or…?

BU: Yeah, you had to have pine splinters or we have, years ago, soaked corn cobs in kerosene oil. And strike a match to ’em and they just burn, you know.

FF: When you first started learning how to cook, was it easy or hard?

BU: Well, I just like everybody else, I guess, I just had to learn Diana.

FF: What did you burn?

BU: Don’t ask me what I burned, ask me how much I burned!

Sharon Stiles

FF: How did you learn how, who taught you how to cook?

Sharon Stiles (SS): My grandmother.

FF: Did she teach you like just from when you were little or was there a certain age?

SS: I just don’t ever remember not sort of being around helping her, so I don’t think there was any, like, structure to know, but just watching her do what she did and sort of following her example.

FF: Is it harder to cook on a wood stove than an electric stove?

SS: Oh gosh, yes. It is harder in a way, because you can’t regulate things as much. As you saw, you have to make sure you keep turning the pan or your biscuits are going to be burned on one side and not brown on the other. So you don’t necessarily…there are challenges on an electric stove or gas stove–I have gas–but not the same as on a wood stove.

FF: What was it like to cook on a wood stove growing up?

SS: Well because I didn’t know anything different, it’s just what you did. It was hard for me when I had to learn to cook when we first, when my husband and I first got married, I think we had a gas stove. And I was terrified of it, because I thought it was going to, I don’t know, blow up or something probably. So then we had an electric stove and I thought, well I think I like the gas stove better, because at least it got hot faster. And it was easier to burn things it seems like on the electric stove. And I don’t know why that is. Because it took longer to get hot and then you would forget about stirring something, or…but there are challenges to all kinds of cooking, I guess, being able to watch what you’re doing.

FF: Do you think food tastes better on a wood stove than?

SS: I do. I do. It tastes different when it’s cooked on the wood stove. And I don’t know why. Because the wood isn’t going to come up through the pan and flavor it, but it just…did you think chicken tasted different cooked on the wood stove than what you remember at your house?

FF: Yes. And the biscuits.

SS: And the biscuits too. So it has, I don’t know what the difference is, but food does taste better on the wood stove.

FF: What kind of oven did you have when you were, or the stove, what brand was it when you were growing up?

SS: It was, well it was a little black stove about this size, the first one my grandmother had. It didn’t have this on it, it was just a flat stove. It wasn’t enamel like that, it was all black. And then, coming through the community was someone selling stoves. What you would call a drummer? Is that the right word? Someone who sells…there was a word for a person who, I can’t, I’m not sure of the right terminology, but he came through and just about every family, at least on Wolffork, bought one of those Home Comfort stoves. And it was a much bigger stove than this…

FF: Than this one here?

SS: It was bigger than this one. And on the side it had a little tank, so you could have hot water. And it probably held about two gallons, it wasn’t all that big, but at least you had hot water. I can remember my mother taking some clabbered milk from the churn, when my grandmother was going to churn, and she put it on the hot water heater. And she made cottage cheese some way, I don’t really know what she did, but I guess it was the heat made the milk clabber and turn into cheese some way. And then she would–I’m sure my grandmother didn’t want her to do it–but she would take a little bit of the cream off the top of the churn and put it on the cottage cheese so it was really, it was very tasty. But I don’t remember her…she didn’t always do that because when she was there, my grandmother might not have had the churn, it might not have been churn day. So that’s one thing I remember about the stove. And I don’t think we did have, I don’t remember having warming, ours didn’t have a warming oven above it. A lot of–there were different models probably.