Self-Esteem and the Kitchen Stove

By Rhea Côté Robbins

Le F.A.R.O.G FORUM, "Self-Esteem and the Kitchen Stove," Vol. 17, Nos. 7/8, 1990.

"We learn to become American by being embarrassed by our parents."

 In the time of my youth, my young girl days, the largest embarrassment of my life was the kitchen stove.  My entire being, ideals compromised, sense of self, place mark and humiliation was encompassed by the very presence of that kitchen stove.  As a young girl, I imagined, that before any suitors would come calling or be allowed into the house, the stove would have to go.  I already suffered the humbling experience of some of my girlfriends, whose family's owned modern electric ranges, seeing our kitchen stove; I was not going to suffer the same embarrassment when, as my mother called them, beaux came to see me.  "Beaux?"  What kind of a dumb word is that?  My self-esteem was ball-and-chained to the very legs of that stove.  It definitely had to go.  I was a thoroughly modern girl who would not be caught dead with a stove like that. 
 While suffering the condition of "childhood," I imagined that I was the only one with the most old-fashioned notion of cooking convenience to be lodged in a kitchen.  White porcelain enamel, four oil burner fired smooth plates on one side and four gas jet burners with a continuous burning pilot on the other side as well as an oven.  The continuous burning pilot was the ultimate prevention technology to keep the cook from blowing them self up.  You could have fooled me from the sound of the flames coming to life in those burners.  And when my mother lit the oven, I'd run and hide behind the rocking chair.  I certainly did not want to miss the explosion entirely.  The time lapse between opening the oven door, turning on the dial, striking the match and making contact with the row of gas jets in the oven was certainly momentous and thrilling.  But the fire always took and the blue flame appeared and out came the cakes, roasts, chickens, pies, turnovers and occasional rabbit or pheasant.  My personal moments of triumph, and at the same time, a coming of age ritual I took part in was when I, myself, lit the oven.  Always tremulous, but determined I was not going to be pushed around by a little bottled gas, when I lit it I felt like the stove kept score and someday it would want to win and do me in.
 Once, I found my grandmother, who lived next door, sitting on her porch steps.  She appeared dazed, the closer I got I saw that her entire face was blackened and her eyebrows and hair was singed.  "What happened to you, mémère?"  I ran home and sent my mother running to help my mémère. It was that old stove.  It blew up in her face.  They could do that to you sometimes if you weren't careful. 
 As my life expanded throughout the neighborhood I found that other such white porcelain monsters existed in my girlfriends' lives as well.  Occasionally, en masse, we bemoaned our bad fortune.  That stove was such an eyesore.  And some were worse than others.  My father maintained the stove and pipe fitter he was, (Steam Man, Mr. Pressure Release Valve) he rigged up a pump, what else, to automatically pump up the oil needed for the oil burner side of the stove.  The pump prevented having to bring the can out side, out back or down cellar to get the oil supply to the stove.  The pump had a small well of oil into which we dipped a rag whenever we painted a room, all paints being oil-based, to clean our hands.  It saved you a trip down cellar to get the turpentine.  But then latex paints came along and water was all the clean-up you needed.  More proof for the jury--the stove was on its way out.  I could feel it.  I had a real love/hate relationship with that stove.
 Mornings we would dress by the stove.  Melt butter and cook our toasts on the oil burner plates--four and five at a time.  My mother did not allow us to cook our toasts there without putting butter on the burner plate because otherwise the bread would stick.  Cooking toasts on the stove without butter was counter-ritual.  My mother told me when she was a girl she would have ten pieces of bread for breakfast cooked on the stove.  "Boy, you must have liked to eat."  I was impressed and incredulous. Ten pieces of bread!  And knowing my mémère and how strict she was, I remarked, "She let you eat ten pieces of bread?" 
 Mornings there would be a pan of cocoa kept warm on the back of the stove.  There's something to be said of cooking in large batches--nothing tastes so rich as a pan of hot cocoa.  Instant Carnation-with-your miniature-marshmallows eat your heart out.  My mother knew I loved to eat "des croutes."  Toasted bread, buttered and dried on the hot oil burner part of the stove.  Some mornings I would get up and my hot, dried toasts were waiting for me along with the cocoa.  Traitor that I became.  That stove had to go.  It was too old-fashioned.  Cumbersome.  Ugly.  Unamerican.  Too much of the old ways.
 My mother had her stove stories.  During pregnancy, she suffered from insomnia so she would get up, drag the rocking chair over to the stove, put her feet up on the oven door and knit far into the night.  During my own pregnancies and insomnia, I too, would sit by a stove, a black parlor stove when wood burning stoves became fashionable during the oil crunch, writing or reading, but never knitting.  I did it in the spirit of all pregnant insomniacs.
 The stoves around the neighborhood came is all kinds of fashion--some gleamed, some had matching salt and pepper shakers attached, some had four oil burners instead of two, some had warming ovens or shelves up above, some were nicked by life in general, some sat idle, constant pots of soup were on the boil, some toasted bread, sacrilegiously to my eyes, without putting butter on the plate first, burning the toast on the burner, and some stoves knew their place was secure because their owners were never going to get rid of their warmth.  It was too vital.  Not our stove.  Not if I had my way.  I had no pride--only shame and it was in my kitchen. 
 My campaign to be rid of the stove was a verbal one fired by a deep loathing for what, to me, represented all that was "old-fashioned."  I wanted a modern electric range.  My mother had a model of her own in mind;  my father alone remained true to the stove.  At one point the stove malfunctioned and metal pieces in the oil burner part melted onto the floor, permanently damaging the floor.  I scrapped up the disease and placed it in my childhood scrapbook.  The stove was getting sick and dying.  Maybe of a broken heart.  I was here to help it kill itself.  I had an ego to consider.  I was certainly not going to be caught with such an eyesore on the premises much longer.  Half of its soul was already dead--the oil burner side was not functioning.  My father removed the pump.  If we needed oil we would have to go downstairs.  Absentmindedly, I would walk toward the pump to douse my rag to clean my brushes and the pump was just a ghost, a memory, a shade.  Something that used to be and no longer is.  Although still useful, it was no longer welcome here.  And take your stove with you I would tell the pump.
 The stove--half dead--was too much in the way so there was talk of replacing it.  I danced on its grave.  A new stove!  Ha!  I won!  A new stove!  My father brought in a later model of the same kind of monstrosity--only smaller.  White enamel, gas, with black trim, four legs and humiliation.  What was wrong with the man?  Did he have no realization that my future was at stake?  What about the self-esteem?  Never mind how everyone in the neighborhood was so unfortunately blessed--I want the damn thing out of here!  Now.  Not tomorrow or next week, now.  My father's favorite word or phrase in life was:  "it's only temporary," and when he said it we all shuddered.  His "temporary" was the most permanent thing on earth.
 How was I supposed to explain myself to anyone with that stove sitting there pronouncing our ignorance.  We did not seem to know any better or rather the stove spoke for itself.  The wrong kind of language.  The home language.  The one you would never talk about in public.  It fed you, it kept you warm and it was company on those long sleepless nights, but you could not market that in the finer circles of existence.  And other people in the neighborhood were beginning to get electric ranges.  Worse of all I had met a boy and his family was totally electrically modern equipped.  Things were not looking good.

 Well, we got the electric range.  My brother went into the custom kitchen cabinet business and he gave my parents an electric stove.  It cooked all right, but you could not cook any toasts on the burners and sitting around the electric heating element is about as exciting as licking an envelope.  Like sitting around a quartz heater--it's plenty hot, but something elemental is missing.  The other stove wound up in some dump like nobody cared about it.  But the warmth and nourishment that the stove provided is there and will always be there--whether I want to admit to it or not.
 I've learned to adjust.  I now cook my toasts in le poëlon to simulate the oil burner plate toasts; one son complains that I smell up his outfit with a smoky smell.  "I hate it when you cook your toasts that way, mom!  I smell all day!"  "That's so you know where you came from, boy.  Me and my ways."  The youngest asks that I should cook his toasts in the frying pan, too.  Since we try to run a democratic household--that's one vote for me and my toast ritual.  I've learned to make dried toast in the electric toaster--I toast my bread once through on the regular cycle and then I turn down the browning mechanism to zero and run the bread through several more toasting cycles to hardened and dry the bread--apply some margarine--and presto! you would swear that old stove was present and accounted for.  Its legacy is there.  I know that such a ritual existed.
 There was a time, at camp, when there was another old stove in my life, an even older one than the enameled version, a cast iron stove, all rusted, ornamental and wood fired.  My mother, on hot summer days, would fire up the wood box, drive us all out of the camp with the heat and bake us a cake.  I think now that she did it just to impress us and to show us she could bake a cake in a stove fired by wood.  When my father decided a gas stove was just the thing for camp, he carried the cast iron stove outside and broke it up with a sledge hammer.  I was appalled.  How could you do such a thing.  "You are going to be sorry you broke that stove."  "What good is that old thing," he replied.  I had to take a walk.  I couldn't stand to watch him crack up the stove that way.  Later on I had the satisfaction of hearing him say, "I should have never did that.  I should have kept that old stove.  Do you know how valuable that old stove would be now?"  So they bought themselves a Franklin fireplace, then an antique parlor stove, they hauled an old pot-bellied stove down to camp and kept mourning the memory of the other stove--the broken one--the one he had thoughtlessly destroyed. 
 The kitchen stove and its flame, for me, is symbolic of my cultural self-esteem and I don't mean to say that material possessions explain who we are because they don't.  (The kitchen stove has also come to represent the burden and the enslavement of women and I do not talk of reverting to mentalities where the stove expresses self-worth on those terms alone either because I do not necessarily understand the spaces women have traditionally occupied as bad spaces.  Only when we allow ourselves to be told they are bad spaces, and we believe it, do we allow yet another defeat.  Anywhere we work is a good place to be.  There is no male space or female space except one--the spaces we occupy in making a new human life.  The other boundaries exist only in the mind.)  But I do mean that we all sit around or tend the fire sometime in our life.  We've all sat around the fire--a primordial fire at times--and just because we wrap the fire in a fire box, and the rituals we perform around the fire changes as well as the performers of the rituals--we have only to recognize the fire and how it burns.  Sometimes we know where the heat comes from--the quality of its flame depends on the source of its fire--sometimes we don't know where the fire comes from, or, traitors we are at times, we won't admit to the fire at all, while for some the fire burns truer than other fires and they refuse to leave the fire untended.  Sometimes, even our own fathers and mothers will remove the source of heat from our lives or we remove it from our children's.  And sometimes the fire burns us.  Or blows up in our face--the very thing that should nurture, sustain, support, feed, nourish, foster, cherish, educate, train, us, does just the opposite and turns on us--or so we imagine because someone told us our fire was not as bright or warm as theirs, therefore we refuse to nurture, sustain, support, feed, nourish, foster, cherish, educate, train the culture and to it is attached our self-esteem and, thus, we refuse to tell the secret of the fire.  We cannot yet learn what the fire teaches us in any school, but the knowledge of the fire is very real and useful.  And there are other rules to use the fire.  We have to treat the fire with respect in order to get it to do what is good for us.  The fire in your cultural kitchen stove/self-esteem is ember-like and wanting just a puff or hint of air to let it burn.  Let it breathe.  Let it breathe. 

Rhea Côté Robbins is the author of Wednesday's Child--a memoir about growing up in the Franco-American community of Maine. 

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