Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Family lore

I remember my mom's stories about her grandmother who would test the temperature in her oven by putting her arm in. If it was hot enough to singe the hair on her arm, it was hot enough for her to begin baking.

Our range is not that basic, but it's pretty basic. Neither the cooktop nor the oven has a pilot light, so you just light a match before turning on the gas. The oven also has no thermostat, but unlike my great-grandmother's oven this one has a thermometer on the door. You adjust the height of the flame to maintain whatever temperature you want inside the oven. Since the temperatures are in centigrade, I really have no idea what I want anyway and don't use the oven much.

Tonight, however, I wanted to bake some chicken thighs. I lit a match and held it over the lighting hole in the oven before turning on the gas. I heard the familiar "whump" as the gas ignited (so I thought) and blew out the match. Presently I noticed a stale smell in the kitchen and opened the window a crack, thinking the oven's jets must not be properly adjusted.

A little later I remembered that Alla had left me some nice packets of herbs and I decided to deploy some of them atop my chicken. I opened the oven and took out the pan with potholders. I decorated the meat and returned it to the oven. Then I finally noticed that the oven was cold.

Readers in North America may be a little puzzled at this point. Why didn't I notice the smell of the gas? Well, it turns out that natural gas doesn't have much of a smell. To most people, in fact, it's odorless. But gas companies in our part of the world add a stinky chemical to the gas so it's really obvious if it's escaping in the wrong place. Apparently gas companies over here don't do that.

A stupid thought passed through my mind. I wanted to eat. I'd better light that thing. Fortunately, another bit of family lore came immediately to thought. My grandfather made that very mistake and had a large explosion as a result. It burned his face badly and, the part I liked hearing about as a little kid, it burned off his eyebrows. Remembering that I already missed my eyebrows, I opened the windows wide and went out to dinner. After turning off the gas, of course.

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