I have a secret. There is a saucepan of giblet gravy from Thanksgiving at the back of my refrigerator. It’s not that I haven’t cleaned the fridge since November. I’ve cleaned around it — around the saucepan of giblet gravy. I haven’t had the strength to face that pot.
A characteristic tendency to cling too tightly to the past — a less than total embrace of the Buddhist concept of “impermanence,” even though I think about impermanence and temporality way more than is strictly healthy — has its most obvious manifestations in the kitchen. For example, my stove. It’s a propane Crown range from the 1960s with two full-size ovens, two broilers, and six burners. A 1960s six-burner stove is the only proper stove on which to cook, I.M.H.O. Nothing on earth is going to convince me to switch to an electric stovetop. I will not lift the lid on that saucepan of giblet gravy, and I will not read the newspaper articles about New York State’s ban on gas stoves.
Nostalgia can be inconvenient. When something goes wrong with my Crown range and I need a new part, its antiquity necessitates extensive correspondence with Consuela (not her real name), a businesswoman in the Midwest who, it seems, owns a storeroom filled with the only Crown and Co. spare parts remaining in the United States. From the tenor of our emails and telephone exchanges, it appears that Consuela believes me to be a Real Housewife of the Hamptons in possession of a professionally restored vintage stove, a rich person not just able but willing to spend $375 on a pair of chrome replacement handles for my Crown range. I am not that person; Consuela does not understand. This spring, I did really need to buy a thingy called a “burner ring” — about 3.5 inches across and made of lightweight tine — and securing this thingy from Consuela required about two dozen emails and phone calls and payment of $135.
Nevertheless, I am devoted to my Crown range. It was my grandmother’s, an inheritance. Somewhere or other I have a funny photo of her and the late chef and cookbook author Craig Claiborne standing in front of the Crown range, which has been covered and set as a bar; they are having cocktails. I learned to cook on this Crown range, and tended to go for recipes from at least 50 years past. By 12, I was attempting a very tricky custard in my grandmother’s dented double-boiler; and plain, old-fashioned pie crusts; clam fritters with huge amounts of garden herbs; cranberry relish with ginger and orange peel, ground in an ancient and crusty metal meat grinder (the kind that you attach to the table with a turn-screw clamp) then boiled only just so to soften the bitterness; lots of Hatfield hams, baked with molasses; many cookies, and many, many cakes. Orange chiffon cake, a dome-shape snowball cake with coconut. Marble cakes, berry bundts.
Happiness is a yellow cake with chocolate frosting.
Some people’s “happy place” is Disney World or a soft sectional couch with a mohair lap blanket and chardonnay. My psychic place of comfort and security isn’t a place I actually ever inhabited, but a location of the time-space continuum that I soaked up secondhand in some corner of my brain — capable of absorbing other generations’ nostalgia — that was the most optimistic, cozy, and secure pinpoint on the human continuum: the America of the 1940s, when cake recipes came in brightly colored giveaway pamphlets published by the Gold Medal Flour Company and children’s books were illustrated with smiling oranges and dancing milk bottles.
My kitchen remains outfitted for the preparation of a very 1940s dinner (lamb chops and green peas), served on 1940s china (Franciscan Ivy plates, and one of those vegetable dishes that looks like a head of cabbage). Dinner will be followed by 1940s zebra cake for dessert. I didn’t like the 1970s when I was in them; the 1970s were melancholy, from a child’s perspective. All that rust orange and avocado green, The Smoky the Bear brown paint that covered picnic tables and campsites. The depressing, rainy-day songs on the AM radio — “Angel of the Morning,” and the theme song to M*A*S*H.
A month or so ago, my son and his buddies, a gaggle of 13-year-old boys who still like slingshots, water pistols, and Warheads Extreme Sour candies, got bored with hanging around Starbucks and, with Herrick Park closed, decided to come back here to bake a cake for fun. Da Boyz made an ungodly mess, throwing things around the kitchen, and laughing uproariously about our antique kitchen implements. They fell out over the egg beater. I heard one of them shouting, “I saw this thing on ‘Antique Road Show’!”
Teddy is a rake, a beanpole, and doesn’t even like to eat sweet things, so I don’t know what’s inspired him to take up baking, other than perhaps a child’s ability to absorb the nostalgia of previous generations. He made brownies for Mother’s Day, forgetting the butter, which provided an interesting lesson in how baking recipes are like science; he presented me with a 9-by-9-inch square panful of chocolate dust; I, of course, loved it. Delicious dust. Then, home sick from school last week, he made a more than half-decent chiffon cake, encountering for the first time and with some surprise the difficulty of beating egg whites and “folding” them in without flattening the batter.
Teddy had been taking his cake recipes off the internet, but after the chiffon cake, I convinced him that rando recipes from TikTok or a Google search are less likely to produce confections of perfection than tried-and-true, time-tested favorites from actual cookbooks, like “The Joy of Cooking” or Maida Heatter’s “Great Desserts.” I somehow persuaded him to bake a classic yellow cake from a 1960s edition of “The Joy.” He made two dang good layers and let them cool well on a rack, and then I taught him my secret recipe for frosting. I won’t divulge it. Depending on whether you’re doing plain or chocolate, it has just two or three ingredients and requires no measuring. Teddy smoothed the top and edges with more patience than I ever had with a frosting knife. He has not yet internalized the natural order of baking — first, you cream the butter and sugar, then beat in the eggs and vanilla — and he put the milk in with the butter, before the sugar, all topsy-turvy. But his yellow cake was delicious, a beautiful circle, a sun, that has been swiftly disappearing (should I say “waning”?) on the kitchen table and may not survive the afternoon.