23 January 2022
How many electrical appliances in your kitchen are more than forty years old? Countless electric toasters, microwave ovens, waffle makers, popcorn poppers, hand-mixers, and coffee pots have come and gone in mine, along with an electric knife and a knife-sharpener-can-opener combination that I decided were not worth their counter or storage space.
I still occasionally use an electric frying pan that my brother and I bought as an anniversary present for our parents in the 1960s. It brings back memories of my college days in a first apartment shared by four of us who rotated cooking on a daily schedule. Jane owned the electric skillet, which we put to regular use, frying chicken, making stews, pot roasts, pork chops, hot dogs, and batches of chile (often using recipes from another cherished well-worn antique, the hilarious I Hate to Cook Cookbook by Peg Bracken that contained such memorable favorites as Chilly-Night Chili, Stayabed Stew, and Cockeyed Cake. I owned the cookbook, a gift from the irrepressible Gen Markle, one of my mother’s closest friends, who inscribed it (with my slightly misspelled name), “To Linnae with love, and best wishes for a happy and nutritious year.”
I still occasionally still make Cockeyed Cake. But my usual stand-by these days is an Australian plain cake, which becomes dazzling with the addition of jam or jelly, fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries, kiwis, raspberries, or whatever is available). A few dollops of Grand Marnier or Amaretto and lots of freshly whipped cream hold the layers together and cover the whole thing. I call it Australian Cake, although there’s probably nothing Australian about it. It was inspired by my friend Jenny in Melbourne, who not only added all the extras to the “plain cake” recipe found in an Australian cookbook but often presented it with the flourish of a ribbon wrapped around it, a particularly clever trick if you don’t have enough whipped cream to cover the sides.
But, my prized long-running-hit kitchen appliance is a flaming orange Rival Crockpot, one of the first purchases I made in 1973 when after four years of living on savings and meager graduate-student fellowships, I finally could afford to buy some extras. I had a real job, teaching at the College of Ganado on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona, and there was a fairly new large FedMart store in Window Rock, a thirty-minute drive over the Defiance Plateau. The store was much like a modern Walmart or an old-fashioned general store, with almost anything one could possibly need or want, at a low price.
I would fill my crockpot with stew meat, carrots, potatoes, onions, and maybe some celery, garlic, and tomato sauce or paste in the morning. Then, I would work all day, or spend a day exploring the countryside before coming home to a delicious hot dinner. As the ads for the crockpot said, “It cooks all day while the cook’s away.”
I’ve never done any of the fancier things the crockpot is said to do, like make cakes or bread, but for years I’ve used it to make pot roasts, stew, and one-pot meals of various kinds. I also sometimes use it to cook dried beans, and in cold weather make hot spiced apple cider, or another old favorite from one of my mother’s close friends, “Hilma’s Holiday Glogg,” (pronounced gloog), a Swedish recipe that involves large quantities of burgundy, raisins, and cardamom seeds, served in teacups with a dollop of vodka or bourbon to top off the already-potent brew.
Over the years, I have relied on the crockpot, whether I’ve been dashing off to work or school, spending a day with guests, or hiking in the mountains. It is wonderful to come home to an aromatic hot dinner and is well worth the twenty minutes or so it takes to prepare the meat and vegetables or dried beans before rushing off in the morning, leaving the meal to cook safely for eight to twelve hours. The meat cooks first, the vegetables more slowly.
I love the simplicity of this old pot, which unlike more recent and more popular incarnations with countless buttons to push for various settings, requires nothing more than an electrical outlet. Its three settings; off, low, and high, are operated by the turn of a dial. What could be simpler? I have looked at the new instant pots, but like my new-fangled oven, which requires an instruction book to operate all its bells and whistles, they seem unnecessarily complicated, although perhaps they can do more. Sometimes less is more, and after almost fifty years, this simple appliance still works perfectly. What more could I want?