I like my stove. It’s a gas stove. I turn a dial and flames appear as high or as low as I like. The burners are exceptionally easy to clean. Inside the oven, the temperature will be whatever I set it. Heat can flow from the top or bottom elements, whichever I choose. I can pop raw food in, walk away, forget it, and later a timer will beep to alert me that the cooking is complete.  Plus, to clean my oven, I need only to pull a lever and press a button. Three hours later, the food that had spilled in the oven is history. How fortunate I am to cook in the 21st century.

Twenty years ago a few of my friends lived in remote cabins high up in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Their stoves were wood-burning. We all admired Alyssa’s mastery of her wood-stove. She could  manipulate a fire to be whatever heat she wanted, in which ever part of the stove she wanted. She could simultaneously bake bread in the oven, cook a pot of stew on the stove-top, and warm other foods in the warming compartments above. Alyssa enjoyed her wood-stove immensely. Some of my other friends weren’t so skilled. Their fires took a long time to light, and they could only prepare a few dishes with any reliability. As a result, these friends either ate cold food or at our house.

Wood-stoves are obviously slow to “turn on”, sooty and difficult to clean. I try to imagine how much earlier I would have to rise in the morning if I had to prepare my family’s breakfast on one. We’d probably eat a lot of cold food too, and my kids would regularly munch granola bars on the school bus.

Typically today, when we think of cooking over a fire, we picture a man relaxing next to his grill. What a modern image, especially considering that for centuries women manned the fire beneath the food. Yet still, contemplation of cooking on a wood-stove is tinged with nostalgia, false notions that life was simpler, and, for some, a heavy dose of curiosity.

For the curious, Old World Wisconsin in Waukesha County is offering wood-stove cooking workshops on April 12 and April 26. In a 19th-century setting, participants will learn the basics of wood-stove cooking as they prepare three historic recipes. Old World Wisconsin’s workshops are a fun, hands-on way to glimpse the everyday lives of our great-great grandparents. In May, the beautiful grounds and historic homes of Old World Wisconsin open for general touring and become a fun destination for families curious about 19th-century Wisconsin life.

19th-century cooking is on my mind today because I’ve been reading A Literary Feast: Recipes and Writings by American Women Authors from History. The historic recipes in this cookbook were culled from the novels, essays, and cookbooks comprising the William B. Cairns Collection of American Women Writers (1650-1920) which can be found in the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Memorial Library, Department of Special Collections. Peppered among the recipes are excerpts from these American women authors’ works which supply a historical backdrop for each dish.

Yesterday I tried making one of the recipes. For the first time I attempted lemon rice pudding. The recipe came from Mary Ronald’s 1896 cookbook entitled The Century Cook Book. It sounded easy to make, and it was. But boy was it time-consuming, – a lot of stirring, and I even had an electric mixer! But it was delicious! I topped the lemon rice pudding with a lemon meringue, and the flavors were light, sweet, and tart. My family decided it was a “real company dish!” 

Keep reading to see pictures and the recipe.

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