Sunday, 6 March 2011

Arrgh! Who Invented This Oven Anyway?

My oven has been misbehaving lately.  At totally random intervals, the broiler element comes on instead of the bottom element, scorching the tops of whatever I am baking.  Yesterday it did this at the very beginning of  a batch of bread, scorching the tops of the loaves black before the insides of the loaves had even begun to set.  So frustrating!  I cursed my stove roundly and then called a repairman, who told me that the problem was probably due to a computer chip that needs replacing.  Until the part comes in, I continue to play oven roulette; allowing sufficient time to remake everything just in case the problem reoccurs.

The problem with my oven caused me to think about how much I take my stove for granted.  Modern ranges, with their easily adjusted settings and usually reliable ovens are a very recent invention. 

There were ovens even in prehistoric times, built of hardened mud.  They were common household fixtures in the Indus valley and in pre-dynastic Egypt.  In central Europe, fire pits in insulated yurts were used to cook mammoth as long ago as 29,000 BC but it was the Greeks who invented the front loaded oven, and it was they who developed bread baking into an art.  The bakers' profession developed in their culture, as bread was increasingly baked outside the home by trained professionals and then sold to the public. 

Even though the first cast iron stoves made their appearance in the 1700’s, they were not common in European homes.  In most villages, the baker owned the only oven.  If one wanted to bake something at home, a cauldron was used.  It was placed on the fire and banked with embers.  The heat from the embers transferred to the pot, cooking the food inside.

Gas stoves arrived in the 1800’s and electric stoves even later.  With the coming of the industrial revolution and the rise of the middle class, home ovens became more and more common.  By the 20th century, most homes had an oven of some sort in their kitchens.

Time enough has passed that we have come to take the convenience of a home oven for granted.  Still it takes only one failure of this common appliance for us to be reminded of how very much they have changed our lives.

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