Older and Wiser

Fastidious cooks, I suspect, clean their ovens after each use, preserving the bright-as-new shine that looks, to me, like an oven has been ignored. But looks can be deceiving; those fastidious cooks apply more energy and time than I am willing to give, thereby ensuring a spotless shine worthy of showroom display.

Although I do not use the oven a great deal when I cook, when I use it the things I cook apparently emit oily vapors and flecks of fat or tissue or strings of vegetable protein and the like. The oven in my house is not hideous, but the glass door is deeply unattractive and the once-shiny interior surface of the oven is dull and mottled. If it were a dog’s coat, I would call it a hazy deviant brindle. Except this oven’s interior was a bright cobalt blue when purchased. Now, it is a rather odd brindle blue, not at all pleasing to the eye. I hope it will shine again, though. I decided last night that the oven needed cleaning, so I prepared to tackle the job. I set out a spray bottle of filtered water, a plastic scraper, a towel, and soft cloths. Then, this morning, I sprayed water according to directions and set the oven to “Easy-Clean.”  Ten minutes later, the sound of a bell signaled that the task was finished. I opened the oven and wiped up the water. An improvement, but not at all what I expected.

The directions suggested especially dirty ovens might require a second “Easy-Clean” cycle. Though this oven was not especially dirty (but what do I know about the relative dirtiness of ovens?), I decided to go through the process again. While that is happening, I am writing. Ach! There went the bell again! I will return here when I am older and wiser.

I am older, but not appreciably wiser. The second “Easy-Clean” process did little to improve the appearance of the oven. I wiped the oven surface, expected the shine to return. An almost imperceptible improvement; still, not clean. The next step, the instruction manual says, if the oven remains embarrassingly unattractive, should be “Self-Clean.” “Self-Clean” requires the kitchen to be vented, all accouterments removed from inside, outside, and near the oven, and a long time period without access to either the oven or the stove-top burners. Three settings, ranging from three to five hours, are available. Temperatures inside the oven reach upward of five hundred degrees during the process. I remember that either the installer or the salesperson suggested “Self-Clean” be avoided because the high temperatures could damage the appliance’s delicate computerized controls, rendering the oven and the stove-top useless and exceptionally expensive to repair. So, what to do?

The manual does not mention oven cleaner, but I have some of the stuff I use on internal elements of my smoker to clean up after brisket, ribs, turkey, pork loin, etc. Those meats, coupled with high temperatures and smoldering wood chips, leave black, hardened goo and layers of smoke and grease on the racks, drip pan, and door, not to mention the internal sides, top, and bottom. I use oven cleaner on some of those elements. And I decided to spot-clean the oven with the stuff. It’s working, I hope, as I write this. I shall see.

Dramatic improvement, but still not as clean as I’d like. So, I did another spot-clean. The down side of using Easy-Off is that the stuff has potent ingredients that cause me, if even a tiny whiff of the stuff gets in my lungs, to go into a fit of coughing that lasts several minutes. I suspect several layers of lung tissue are vaporized when one part per billion mixes with air that I breathe in. Thankfully, though, my pulmonary decay contributes to a shinier oven. The next time I go in to wipe the inside of the oven, perhaps I should try to hold my breath for the three or four minutes necessary to accomplish the task. I rather doubt I would be successful, inasmuch as it’s tough for me to hold my breath for ten seconds during CT scans of my chest.

The deed is done. It’s as clean as it’s going to be, I suspect. Though dull spots abound among the shiny blue surface, they are not spots of dirt. No, they are the scuffs and abrasions of food preparation. Those hazy areas amid the polished luster of sparkling cobalt offer evidence the oven has battled pork roasts and pizzas and chicken breasts and sausage & cheese balls and hundreds of other explorations into meal preparation.

It occurs to me that the oven (as well as the stove-top and the smoker and the grill) constitutes one element in the cycle involving the combination of heat and ingredients. The animals and plants we consume transform nutrients and fuel from the sun into their bodies and substance. We then apply heat to the flesh of those animals and plants, transforming them into our own bodies. Eventually, our bodies decay to form nutrients that finally may make their way back into nutrients. The only constant in the cycle is the sun; it is required for the heat and for unleashing the nutrients required for the next step in the cycle.  If I were more inventive and more energetic, I could skip the oven and the stove-top and the smoker and the grill. I could rely, instead, on the one constant. I could harness the power of the sun to cook my food. Hmm. I suppose that’s exactly what I’ve done heretofore, without even realizing it. The sun’s power must have been harnessed to allow for the creation of those cooking devices. While I’m not directly harnessing the sun’s power, I am the recipient of the efforts of others to do exactly that.

This is the sort of thing that happens when one cleans the oven and thinks about the process. It leads places that, initially, might have seemed utterly out of place in one’s brain. I just referred to “places,” as if there are locations in the brain associated with thoughts and ideas. I know that is theoretically correct. I wish I could control places in the brain, mine and others, that deny entry to anxiety and fear and doubt and discomfort and all the rest of the emotions that can make life seem to be the enemy. But I can’t. So, instead, I clean ovens and wash the deck and patch dings in walls that should have been patched years ago. That’s my attempt at therapy. That, and cooking. And writing.

 

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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