Around this time of year when the winter temperature hoovers near unbearable, the smell of cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and fresh baked biscuits hover like a foggy morning in my mind. Coming in from the cold to Grandma’s kitchen brought warmth and the promise of good food from the black cast iron cook stove. Anything from that stove was fair game, except the last biscuit. It’s Grandpa’s for supper. Winter also brought the spicy, root beer, smell of sassafras tea. Grandma claimed it thinned your blood and made you warmer in the winter.
That stove was the heart of Grandma’s house. She had an electric stove but it was only for the son’s wives to cook on at holiday time: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Early morning Grandpa would haul up a bucket of coal from the basement and get the stove stoked for a day of cooking and heating the house.
There was no heat in the upstairs bedrooms, so at bedtime Grandpa would open the stairway door and a hurricane of heat would rise through the stairwell. Trouble is, once it was warm enough to go to bed under a few quilts, Grandpa closed the door. The result, when I woke the morning I’d run downstairs to the cook stove, thankful that Grandpa got up early to stoke the fire.
Grandpa would be doing chores in the barn and I’d find Grandma at the stove frying bacon or pork chops for breakfast. When the frying was done, the grease was transformed into brown gravy to go with the biscuits cooking in the oven. She’d add flour to the skillet, let it brown a little, then milk from a jug, and finally a ladle of hot water from the stove’s attached water well.
While she was cooking I’d beg to stoke the fire with another lump of coal or a log. Grandma would say, “Timmy, I think I’ve got the stove hot enough.” She’d take a couple of minutes to inspect the gravy and biscuits and then look at me. “Well, I guess it could use some more. Now mind you, just one lump of coal. No more.”
After breakfast, Grandma would take hot water from the stove well and wash the dishes. I’d dry because if I helped I’d get to bake a cake. I don’t think it really mattered if I helped or not but I thought it did. She’d have me go to the back pantry and pick out a Watkins Cake Mix. It was always white. I’d mix it, put it in a cake pan, and then help Grandma get the right temperature on the oven. There was no thermometer. “Timmy, stir those coals up a little more.” Grandma would wait a minute or too. “Put that small lump of coal in.” She’d put her hand in the oven, adjust a vent or two, and then say, “Okay bring the pan over. It’s ready. Careful now. Don’t burn yourself.” When it was all done, we’d let it cool and top it off with Hersey’s Cocoa fudge icing.
When it was finished and I had a taste, Grandma would shoo me outside with some chore or just to play. I understand now, she just wanted to nap. I was happy to let her have an afternoon rest, because I knew there would always be warmth around the cook stove when I returned.