Optimus 199-The Classic Multi-Fuel Stove

Root Hog or Die, or in this Case, Prime the Stove or go Hungry

My mid 1980’s Optimus 199 is still going strong, and I bought it brand new for less than $100, so in the used car business, this would be known as a one owner item. That’s probably a good thing, as these are more than a little collectible, with prices of upwards of $500 not uncommon, if you can find anyone willing to part with their’s. This is the stove that started me on the downward slope of collecting, hoarding, and gear heading.

There is something innately satisfying in carrying everything that’s needed to cook in one small container. On an overnight trip, it may not even be necessary to carry any extra fuel. I always do anyway, as I pack light and really like to cook.

Blue Hot. Look, but don’t Touch

The wind screen doubles as a pot support, and makes for an incredibly stable set up. Those Swedes, they are so clever. I did move the fuel bottles, as I once set the MSR one on fire.

Safe Cooking. Keep the Adjustment Key away from the Stove

Will it boil water?

Ramen Noodles in a Couple of Minutes, or Instant Grits instantly

Now, how multi fuel is it? White gas (benzene, petrol) is easily the best fuel. Kerosene requires some practice, as the stove has to be properly pressurized, and that little pump is what you might call small. Alcohol is anybody’s guess. A few years back, I talked with the Optimus experts at A&H Enterprises in California, and they knew of no one who used this as an alcohol stove. Why would you, when a bag of Optimus parts costs more than a Trangia alcohol stove?

The famous Optimus Cobra silent burner is everything it should be, the armored vehicle of the stove world. My stove lives in this little Cascade Designs stuff sack. It’s much better than a strap, to keep all those parts from wandering around.

Behold, the Complete Package

How many modern little weight weenie stoves will still be working, 35 years from now?

Great Southern Food Essays–“The Pleasures of Eating,” by Wendell Berry (1989)

Every writer runs across an essay occasionally, and says, “Damn, I wish I had written that.” Let’s just say that there are probably thousands of writers who wish they had written “The Pleasures of Eating.” Brilliant and prophetic at the same time, it has to be the best takedown of the current food system dominated by big agriculture.

I’m just going to start with one of the finest sentences I’ve ever read. “Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing.” Industrial sex? What a comparison. Every time I drive past a fast food place like Chickin-fil-whatever, I have the same thought.

Here’s another zinger, about how oblivious people are to the garbage they are eating. “One will find this same obliviousness represented in virgin purity in the advertisements of the food industry, in which the food wears as much makeup as the actors.” I actually had a student who worked as a food “stylist” and photographer, and she sprayed her food with hair spray before she took a picture of it. Enough said.

I will end with the thesis, which is something of an odd way to end, but it is “the proposition that eating is an agricultural act.” I won’t give all of Berry’s recommendations, but a revised version of the entire essay is posted on the interwebs. Alas, it omits the industrial sex reference. Read it, and weep anyway, for the current state of our food system. Then go to your local farmer’s market, and buy some real food.

I saw Mr. Berry once, when he gave a reading at the University of Illinois. He drove up from his farm in Kentucky, and showed up wearing a pair of overalls. That’s what we call keeping it real.

Svea 123–The Ultimate Outdoor Stove

A Stove with Drama. Swedish and Proud of It

No one needs a 30,000 BTU kerosene burner all the time, so my go to outdoor stove is the venerable SVEA 123, based on a design which is well over a hundred years old. It’s so complex my version, the 123R, has TWO moving parts. In two decades, it has never needed a single repair.

Then there’s the drama. It burns white gas, aka petrol, coleman fuel, benzine, etc, so it needs to be primed in order to light. Pour a little fuel over the burner, light a match, throw it in the direction of the stove, and RUN AWAY. This stove is not recommended for use on oak tables.

Will it cook?

A Fast Boil

After the starter flame burns out, the stove is easily lit, and then comes the famous sound–a jet engine, or a rocket taking off. Mine sounds like a locomotive trying to get up a mountain-chug chug, chug chug. This is my favorite outdoor stove.

Buy one of the old solid brass Swedish made ones from eBay, and if you’re incredibly lucky, you can get one with the Sigg Tourist cook set. I admitted to my wife that I have a fetish for camping stoves–I have six–but I could live with just this one.

All the Parts

Growing Citrus in the Central South

Key Limes

Key Lime and Meyer Lemon, grown north of Birmingham, Alabama.

Our latitude here may be more or less the same as northern Morocco and Libya, but it still gets nice and cold. The hardiest citrus plants would still survive outside during the winter, but the problem is that the fruit would not. Who wants that? The answer is growing in pots, aka containers.

The advice here is simple: buy the largest size container you can handle, and then get a plant trolley/buggy to wheel them around with. I made my own out of pressure treated pine. We wheel our plants in in November and put them outside in April. The honeybees love the blooms, and can locate them within minutes of putting the plants outside. It’s almost scary.

Our favorite varieties are the Key Lime pictured, Satsuma Mandarin Oranges, and Meyer Lemon. Year in and out the Meyer is the best, though it is really a hybrid between lemons and oranges. Even in a container it has enormous fruit.

You can also underplant your citrus with something like Christmas Cactus, to make it more decorative.

Great Southern Food Books–Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, and Family (2007)

Kingsolver BookWhy not begin with the best?

If you are looking for a Southern Fusion “Food” book, this is it. This is not a cookbook, in any sense of the word, but a series of interlinked essays about food, Southern and otherwise. Naturally, there are recipes here, but the concept of the book lies in the subtitle: “A Year of Food Life.” It doesn’t hurt that it was written by one of the best writers around, Barbara Kingsolver, who really is a national treasure.

The premise is this: Kingsolver and family move back south from Arizona, after spending years in the Cadillac desert (check out the book with that title). Instead of her native Kentucky, she, her prof husband Steven Hopp, and her two daughters end up in the beautiful mountains of southwestern Virginia, on a large farm. What a sacrifice! Soon thereafter, they decide to conduct a year long experience of living as “locavores,” or people who eat primarily food that is grown locally, within a reasonably short distance from their home in Washington County, Virginia.

Not wanting to give away the entire contents of the book, I will add that Kingsolver goes to New England and the Midwest, and even manages to make it all the way to Italy, as part of her exploration of local food aficionados. It doesn’t get much more fusion than that.

Speaking of that, here is a weekly May menu, compiled for the book by daughter Camille Kingsolver:

Sunday~Grilled chicken, fresh bread, and a giant salad of fresh greens, carrots and peas

Monday~Asparagus and morel bread pudding

Tuesday~Asian summer rolls with spicy peanut sauce, served with rice

Wednesday~Vegetarian tacos with refried beans, pea shoots. lettuce, spring onions, and cheese

Thursday~Cheese ravioli tossed with stir fried spring vegetables, oregano, and olive oil

Friday~Chicken pizza with olives and feta

Saturday~Frittata packed with cheese and vegetables, salad, strawberry-rhubarb crisp

Applebee’s menu, this ain’t. I personally would like to be there for the Monday meal.

In short, this is as inspiring a food book as there is. It even ends with a completely fascinating chapter long examination of turkey production and reproduction, written after Kingsolver made herself an expert on the two subjects. I guess everyone has to be an expert on something, other than just winning one writing award after another.

I was a Teenage Fast Food Worker, Part One–The Night I Cooked for the Mob

ChickenWhy is there a derringer pointed at where this organic chicken’s head used to be? Why is a whole chicken in a skillet? Why am I asking you? Read on.

Nineteen year olds rarely have a chance to cook for a couple of mobsters, and that was not my intent when I showed up for the night shift at our local fast food fried chicken franchise in my home town of Cullman, Alabama. I just wanted to get my work done, and get the hell out of there as fast as possible, because I had a hot date at ten o’clock that night. Ladies, gentlemen, and all you other guys out there, any young woman who will wait until ten to start a date is worth the time.

Speaking of extortion schemes, the University of Alabama was starting a series of tuition increases that have not stopped since then, and I needed some extra money to cover the bits and pieces. After one year there, I was actually headed into my junior year, having begun college with a year’s worth of credit. At any rate, I was one of the last people to see tuition at $98 per semester.

We had two cooks at two different stations that night, as the restaurant served two different types of fried chicken: one that was pressure fried, which gives the chicken a texture impossible to duplicate in the average home kitchen; and another that was just plain old greasy deep fried chicken, though it was marketed as being “crispy.” I manned the deep fryer, as the pressure frying machine was obviously too complex for an English/Physics double major (I later dropped the Physics part).

By 9:15 I had gone through my usual eighty pounds of chicken, and was ready to leave. We locked up at 9:30, and then we two cooks would mop and de-grease the floor with a combination of scalding hot water and Clorox. At exactly that time, a black Cadillac with Illinois plates pulled into our empty parking lot. Two rather large gentlemen with no foreheads and fancy suits stepped out of it, and headed toward our lobby door. Everyone knew it was the Chicago mob.

How did we know? We were in a small town in north Alabama, but none of us fell off the turnip truck on the way to work that day. A local millionaire, who went by the name of Bully Moon, lived a block behind our restaurant. He was rumored to be an acquaintance of many shady folks, including the Chicago mob. Everyone knew this, except for the police, apparently. Bully was eventually convicted of obstruction and tax evasion, and given six years at Club Fed. He only served three. There, he couldn’t touch Little Man Popwell, who owed $400, 000 of tax penalties in 1955, and also spent some time in Club Fed. Little Man was 5′ 6″ and weighed 300 lbs, and allegedly ran the Birmingham affiliate of the New Orleans Mafia, which is said to be the oldest mob group in the country. He ran an illegal mini-casino out of his home in Shelby County, just south of Birmingham, and was even inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in Vegas.

Our two visitors made their way into the lobby, and found themselves face to face with our cashier, who had long fake fingernails, and a beehive hairdo that even Marge Simpson couldn’t compete with. I am able to translate her Southern and their Chicago-ese because of my five year residence in Illinois, and my many more than that years long residence here.

Cashier: “Kin I hep yu?” (Can I help you?)

Goon 1: “We wan sum chickn.” (We want some chicken.) The goon 2 never said anything. Maybe he was shy.

Cashier: “Woold you like the crees-pee, or tha oorigeenul res-a-pee?” (Would you like the crispy, or the original recipe?)

Goon 1: “Whut’s da diffunce?” (What’s the difference?)

Cashier: “Tha oorigeenul has a see-crette blee-end of erbs and spices, and the crees-pee is marry-nated and deep fri-iid.” (The original has a secret blend of herbs and spices, and the crispy is marinated and deep fried.)

Goon 1: “We’ll take uh buckit uv da kispy.” (We’ll take a bucket of the crispy.)

Damnation! If any of that chicken was bad, I was a dead man. There’s nothing worse than someone who misses a date because they’re dead. Maybe my sweetie would cry at my funeral. Then I remembered that there weren’t any tables in our lobby, and only one plastic chair. We were a take out place. They were going to have to eat at Bully’s.

The date was back on.

Or so I thought, as they took the bucket of chicken two feet down the counter, and tore into it standing up. It was awesome to watch. The only difference between those two, and an Alaskan Grizzly eating a live salmon, is that they didn’t eat the bones. Instead, they chunked them back into the bucket, and grabbed another piece. Within five minutes, there was nothing left but a bucket of bones.

They both wiped the grease off their mouths with their jacket sleeves, and Goon 1 turned to our cashier, and said, “Pudy gud.” (Pretty good.) And then they got back into their Caddy, and in my imagination, drove down a block to give Bully the business. So there it was–the mob thought my fried chicken was pudy gud, and I still had a hot date waiting for me. Life was pudy gud.

This needs an epilogue of sorts. A couple of years after my two months at that fine establishment, the kitchen caught on fire, and both chicken fryers and chicken eaters moved across town to a brand new building. They even had tables and chairs there. My date turned out to be even hotter than expected, and four years later, we were married, and still are. As it turned out, I married the best Phi Beta Kappa fryer of chicken in the South. Maybe one day Melanie Jane will have the chance to fry some chicken for a couple of wise guys from Illinois, the state University of which, strangely enough, happens to be her Alma Mater.

Cast Iron Cookware-Materials and Methods for Seasoning

cast ironHere’s a touchy subject if ever there was one, a place where only angels-and fools-dare to tread. However, the above picture of our wall of cast iron will have to serve as evidence that I know whereof I speak. That’s one heavy batterie de cuisine. By the way, the small skillet hanging on the upper left is almost forty years old, but could pass as about a year old.

However, I am going to avoid absolute pronouncements and merely discuss the merits of various materials and methods. Think of seasoning cast iron as analogous to painting a wall. Unless you’re Jackson Pollack, you want to apply thin, even, layers of finish. Here are the top four choices for oils (fats) to use.

Materials

  • Traditionalist’s Choice: Animal Fat.  I’m fairly old school, so I personally use lard, BUT lard that I have slowly rendered myself from locally grown pigs. A section from the Purdue University Pork Industry Handbook , “Pork and Pork Quality” (PIH 128), notes that pork fat is a good source of linoleic acid, a main component of the “drying oils” (aka, oils that transform into a polymer), that will be discussed below. Without wandering off into the forests of chemistry, that is an acid that allows lard to form a polymeric surface (the molecules link together), when exposed to a combination of heat and oxygen. It’s the same way traditional oil paint dries. A. D. Livingston, in his Cast Iron Cooking, is a strong proponent of animal fat, noting that pioneers even used such things as bear fat for seasoning. If you have some extra bear fat in the fridge, go for it.
  • Expert’s Choice: Flaxseed/Linseed oil. Essentially the two are the same thing, but Flaxseed is usually a raw oil marketed for culinary purposes, while Linseed oil comes in various forms, and is intended for wood finishing, or for making oil paints. It is the most famous of the drying oils. In oil painting, this is the oil of choice, as it provides a smoother finish (See Painting Materials, a scholarly text for artists from 1942. We’re in some seriously nerdy territory now). Flaxseed oil is the best for cast iron, raw linseed second, and polymerized linseed oil, which has been heated so that it will dry faster, would be a third choice. I use a food grade “Danish Oil” (polymerized linseed oil) for wooden spoon and bowl finishes, and the brand I use (Tried and True) is also approved for cutting boards. Never ever use boiled linseed oil, which contains as many toxic chemicals as an EPA Superfund site.
  • Two Other Drying Oils: Safflower and Walnut Oils. I have not used these on cast iron, but they are highly rated as drying oils. Safflower has the benefit of being inexpensive and widely available. I have used Walnut oil as a wood finish, and unlike linseed oil, the smell is wonderful. The finish is fantastic as well. Walnut oil has almost twice the oil content of any other non-synthetic oil, so a little goes a long way. Allegedly, it was Leonardo da Vinci’s secret weapon when it came to making oil paints. If you have any left over, make salad dressing with it, or start forging a copy of the Mona Lisa.

Soybean oil and poppyseed oil are also drying oils, but try and find some non-GMO soybean oil at the same price as safflower oil. After you have put an almost invisibly thin coat of oil on some cast iron, what are you going to do? Cook it. Here’s three methods.

Methods

  • Top of the Stove, Bro. This one requires the most attention, but it is the method of choice for seasoning carbon steel pans, and will work with cast iron as well. Disconnect the smoke detector, apply the material thinly, heat it right up to smoking point, take the pan off the heat, wipe it down, and let it cool off. Repeat until you have the finish you want. By the way, don’t disconnect the smoke detector.
  • Bake it. By far the most common method, and recommended by manufacturers such as Lodge, in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. Apply the material, place the pan upside down in the oven, and bake at a high temp for an hour. I’d go with 500 degrees F. Repeat, and apply another coat of oil, if the finish is not sticky to the touch. If it is, bake it for another hour, without additional oil. If it’s sticky after that, scour the pan and begin all over. You’ve been a Jackson Pollock with your oil, which is not a good thing.
  • Burn it. “Like any other Primitive would,” to quote Neil Young from a different context. As with most things, there is a right way and a wrong way to do this. I have seen videos of people throwing a cold skillet into a fire, straight onto a bed of glowing hot coals, which is the cooking equivalent of What Not to Wear. Thermal shock is one of the few things that will ruin cast iron. I prefer to put my cast iron in my brick oven as my fire is just beginning to burn. Eventually, I will push it up into the coals, as the fire begins to burn down. Then I let it cool for hours, or even overnight. If it’s an older piece of cookware, this method serves the double purpose of seasoning, and burning the grunge off of the exterior.

So choose the combination that you like, and be patient. If you pay attention, and take care of your cookware, eventually you will achieve this finish:

Chicken Fryer

A couple of decades of frying chicken has left a little grunge at the top of this fryer, but the business part of this piece is a pure slick polymer. The scratch is the result of an unfortunate use of a metal utensil years ago, and so I now use only wooden ones I have made myself. (Not that I would brag or anything, but I have one featured in the book A Gathering of Spoons: The Design Gallery of the World’s Most Stunning Wooden Art Spoonsby Norman D. Stevens.)

Let’s finish with a couple of often disputed topics. The first is cooking acidic foods, like tomatoes, in cast iron. Of course you can. You’re cooking on a polymerized surface, not bare cast iron. The dish will taste metallic if cooked in an unseasoned pan, but no one should be cooking in an unseasoned pan anyway. I have cooked literally hundreds of dishes of Chicken Creole and Chicken Piquant in my favorite skillet, and both have tomatoes, and the second additionally has white wine and olives. I’ve made both in some of my wife’s fancy copper pans, and the result wasn’t nearly as tasty. Go figure.

The last question is of great import, which is how to clean and maintain cast iron cookware once it is seasoned. A. D. Livingston became an absolutist when working at the nuclear lab in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, after hearing of a skillet that had not been washed in over a hundred years–only wiped clean. He allows rinsing with hot running water is acceptable, but that is it. Others say a drop of dish washing liquid is fine. My experience is that properly seasoned cast iron can withstand anything but steel wool, or one of those copper scrubbing thingys. Even food that might have stuck on comes off easily, unless allowed to dry out on to the pan. Even then a few minutes of soaking will do the job, and if you are impatient, try A. D.’s method of boiling off the offensive bits of food.

In short, chose whatever method serves you best. Back in the day, people just went with what they had. Things appear to have turned out alright.