Is there any aroma more tantalizing than that of homemade bread, fresh from the oven? The cinnamon-spice scent of warm apple pie could take a close second. During this stay-at-home time, people have swept the cobwebs out of their ovens and enjoyed the delicious rewards of their labors. Social media posts report of youngsters’ baking assignments for the week. Pie crust and bread top the list. Yeast has replaced toilet paper as the item in short supply at the grocery store.
Growing up in rural South Dakota, homemade was the standard. Bread, cakes, cookies and pies decked our kitchen table every day, bubbled, browned and baked in the cook stove in the corner. Mom’s stove sported white enamel on the front and black cast-iron on the cooking surface. Cut-out circles formed the burners, with a notched hole near the edge. A special metal handle fit precisely into the notch for lifting the burner. To make heat under each burner and in the oven, fuel had to be added; the ubiquitous corncob came through again!
Two immense piles of corncobs huddled right next to the corn crib north of the barn, the leftovers from a visit by Claus the corn sheller. We kids kept the wooden box next to the stove loaded with cobs. My siblings all remember filling buckets and bushel baskets and hauling them from the pile to the kitchen, often in our Radio Flyer wagon.
Adding more cobs, or a small chunk of wood increased the temperature. “Preheat oven to 350 degrees” translated back then to “add 20 dry cobs, three medium sticks of wood and wait ten minutes.” To test for the Goldilocks requirement, Mom opened the oven door part way, reached her hand in, palm down, and turned it slowly, feeling the temperature. The handy, hand thermostat registered just right. Her precious cook stove browned almost everything to perfection. On baking day, four loaves of bread cooled under a flour sack towel, following a slathering of butter. Some kind of pie, depending on the orchard or the freezer bounty at the time, adorned Sunday dinner dessert plates. The cookie jar did not disappoint. At Christmas time, we baked lefse directly on top of the stove. I remember wiping off the browned flour with a rag, quickly enough not to get burned, but not so fast that flour flew everywhere.
Every wonderful invention has its drawbacks and the cook stove presented no exception; some were downright scary. The smoke from the burning fuel vented outside through a shiny, black metal pipe that extended up from the back to the brick-lined chimney above. Weeks and months of burning added layers of soot and creosote as they ascended toward the outside sky. Unfortunately, these caked-on substances sometimes caught on fire.
One weekday afternoon, Dad drove to De Smet to pick up some shingle nails at the lumberyard. Mom whipped together the ingredients for angel food cake batter and fired up the stove. Angel food required a high baking temperature at the beginning and throughout the entire hour of baking time to keep the cake from falling. As she waited for the oven to preheat, an unusual odor permeated the air, something burning mixed with the smell of scorching metal. Her eyes traveled up the stove pipes to discover that their normal black color had flared to bright red just below the ceiling. A fire raged in the chimney! Chimney fires easily spread to the dry wood that surrounded the cinder block. As a result, many homes burned to the ground.
Our mother sent us outside with orders to stay far away from the house. Somehow, she managed to reach Dad by phone. He probably came close to blowing out the engine on the old Ford ’59 pickup as he raced to get home. Jumping from the truck, our father took a mental roll call of the family and then scanned the roof. The chimney puffed black smoke, and translucent waves of heat swirled out in waves from the surface. The boys ran with him to get the ladder from the Quonset. Mom and the older girls carried pails of water from the cattle tank. Our stomachs clenched with fear as we watched Dad climb the ladder, a bucket in his right hand. As quickly as possible, he hauled up pail after pail and sluiced the roof around the chimney. Finally, the furious flood of smoke diminished to a trickle.
The folks’ eyes met. Mom’s brows still creased with worry when Dad ventured into the house. From outside we heard him testing the pipes. At last, satisfied that the house was safe, he called us back inside.
The story had a happy ending, but it branded our family’s thoughts for a long time. Life experiences change one’s perspective. We no longer took the fire in the cook stove for granted or all the delights it brought forth. Even the heels of bread loaves melted in our mouths. Apple pie filling bubbled through the top slits with spicy goodness. Chocolate chip cookies came out perfectly crisp on the edges and just the right chewiness on the inside.
It was a long time before Mom baked another angel food cake!
DeAnn Kruempel grew up on a farm near De Smet, SD, the sixth child of Harrison and Mabel Wolkow. She attended school at Erwin and De Smet. Married Vicar Robert Kruempel and lived in Benedict, ND, Toeterville, IA, Akron, IA and Missouri Valley, IA. The author now resides on an acreage near Logan, IA and is employed as Children’s Librarian at Missouri Valley Public Library. DeAnn has written a series of books, (four published so far, fifth to come out soon) “Promises to Keep,” which are available at Amazon.com.