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To Cook Or Not To Cook? That Is The Question...

The cooker in my kitchen wasn't quite as old as me, but I ran it a very close race. When it was cooking its first meal, the Beatles were at the top of the charts and I was struggling with the intricacies of the ablative absolute in Latin classes half a world away. So when the cooker and I finally made our acquaintance, we were both of us well past the first flush of youth.

It was brown -- well, either that or there had been an awful lot of food spilled on it over the years. This gave it a somewhat gloomy appearance. Considering when it was born, it really should have been enamelled in day-glo orange, but I'm very glad it wasn't.

The timer was clockwork, and its cogs and gears were so congested with the grease from a million joints of roast beef that it was no longer capable of timing anything at all, unless the dish required infinitely long cooking. Very few recipe books recommend cooking times that long...

The oven was suffering from senile dementia. It would warm itself up nicely to something slightly above the temperature that I'd selected -- the thermostat was not the most accurate in the world and it tended towards the hotter rather than towards the colder -- and happily sit there for a few minutes. Then it would forget that it had already heated itself up, and so it would turn on its coils again for a little while. The temperature would start to rise well above the setting on the thermostat. But after a few minutes, the cooker would remember that it had forgotten that the job was already done, and so the coils would go off again. Then a short time later it would once more forget that it had remembered that it had already reached the optimum temperature, and so the coils would turn on again as the cycle repeated itself. If left alone, this behaviour always resulted in an oven set with an initial temperature of (say) 150 degrees which had reached a final temperature of 350 degrees with all the elements glowing white hot as they desperately tried to raise it even higher. Since food cooked in this manner tends towards the excessively crispy, I therefore had to keep a very close eye on the oven in order to discourage its demented behaviour. And so every time it turned itself on, I would dial the temperature down a bit until it turned itself off again. Thus a constant oven temperature of 150 degrees (give or take 50 degrees) was cleverly maintained by lower and lower settings on the controls. By the time the cooking was done, the oven would still be somewhere in the region of 150 degrees, even though the dial would now be be set to round about 10 degrees and my nerves would have frazzled themselves into shredded wreckage.

I compensated for this eccentricity by seldom using the oven at all. Fortunately there were four powerful hotplates on the top. These worked quite well and over the years they cooked me many a successful stew, casserole and curry. I find it hard to tell these three dishes apart -- I think the differences depend far more upon the guests at the table than they do upon the ingredients of the food itself. If your guests won't eat nasty foreign muck, just tell them it's a stew; if they find stews dull and old fashioned, tell them it's a casserole and if they find casseroles too bland tell them it's a curry. Make sure that you serve the appropriate side dishes for whatever you have decided the main course is pretending to be and Robert is your avuncular relative. Works every time!

And then, one weekend, the hotplates decided to play the same silly games that the oven was playing. None of this slow simmering, thank you very much. Slow simmering is for wimps. Lets get it over and done with. Up with the temperature! Soon the hotplates were able to give me only two temperature choices. On and off. Yin and yang. Hot and cold. Top and bottom. Maximum and minimum. Up and down. Black and white. Computer nerd though I am, I simply couldn't face the future with a binary only cooker. Culinary creations require far more subtlety than that. It was time for a new cooker. Sunday morning dawned bright and clear; a perfect time to head off to the showrooms!

It soon became clear to me that modern cookers came in two flavours. Cheap white ones and expensive stainless steel ones. Brown was definitely not possible in either incarnation. Unfortunately, even the cheap white ones were priced in the eye-watering range as far as my wallet was concerned. And the stainless steel ones, while undeniably sexy, were about the same price as a luxury car, with almost as many gadgets but without the ability to roar down the motorway at 100kph.

I pointed to the cheapest of the cheap white ones, four rings and an oven, just like my old brown one.

"I'll have that cooker, please."

"Certainly sir. When would you like it delivered?"

"Tuesday, please. And will you take the old one away and dispose of it?"

"Of course we will, sir. Would you like us to give it a long, lingering, painful death or would you prefer a quick and easy euthanasia?"

"Oh, the latter, please. I don't want it to suffer. I'm not a cruel man."

That afternoon I cooked my last ever meal on the old brown cooker. I played the usual game of temperature tag with the senile oven. I think it must have known that its end was nigh because it bit me viciously as I took the roasting pan out, and I now have a vivid burn on the back of my right hand which shows promise of an interesting scar.

Tuesday dawned and two men delivered my new cooker. One of the men looked like Russell Crowe and one of them didn't. They wheeled the new cooker in to the house and the one who didn't look like Russell Crowe said, "Watch out for the snake," to the one who did look like Russell Crowe as he walked past the toy rattlesnake that we have hanging from a lamp on the wall. I rattled the tail and the one who looked like Russell Crowe smiled a secret smile.

The one who didn't look like Russell Crowe unplugged the old cooker and then disconnected its power cable which he left neatly coiled on the kitchen sink ready for the electrician to connect to the new cooker. They took the old cooker away. It whimpered pitifully as it left the house it had lived in for nearly fifty years, but I hardened my heart. The one who looked like Russell Crowe patted the snake as he walked past it and it bit him on the bum.

While I waited for the electrician to come and connect up the new cooker, I passed the time by cleaning up several decades worth of greasy, brown manky bits that the old cooker had excreted all over the floor beneath itself. Despite the advice given in the TV adverts for miracle cleaning products, you can't just spray and wipe this stuff away. Prolonged and vigorous scrubbing is essential. And even then it doesn't necessarily work too well, particularly when the goo has been there for so long that it has fossilised into something closely resembling a collection of coprolites. Perhaps I was cleaning a very old and very gradual increment of excrement!

Eventually I got the area vaguely clean and then the electrician arrived.

The first thing he did was screw a complicated looking device to the floor.

"What's that?" I asked.

"It's an anti-tilt device," he said.

"What's an anti-tilt device? And why do I need one? The old cooker didn't have one."

"It's the law now," he explained. "You see, in the years following the delivery of your old cooker, far too many little old ladies opened their oven doors, bent down to inspect their scones, and then slipped and fell onto the open oven door. Their weight on the door caused the oven to tilt forwards and fall down on top of them, crushing them to death and getting the scones dirty. This was widely regarded as being bad for business and therefore all modern cookers are required by law to have an anti-tilt device so that when the little old ladies fall across their oven door the cooker stays upright and they live to bake more scones."

"What a good idea," I said. "How does it work?"

"Oh it just hooks into the back of the stove and holds it firmly in place so that forces from unexpected angles won't topple it over. It works in earthquakes as well."

"Presumably that's an unexpected side effect?" I asked.

"Oh, indeed," he said.

He wired it all up, tested it out and said, "There you are, squire. All done. Happy cooking!"

It's my first ever brand new cooker. All the cookers I have used in the past have been pre-loved and have exhibited various eccentricities of control caused by miscellaneous bits wearing out and being replaced by things that weren't quite right or, in some cases by not being replaced at all. So I was quite looking forward to playing with a cooker that had all its mechanisms in place and which did everything exactly as it was told to do; no more and no less. I carefully planned the first week's menus in order to make the maximum possible use of every cooking surface available to me rather than for the sake of any nutritional content in the food itself. That meant that I could get the greatest possible cooking pleasure from my new toy.

As might be expected, I had some initial timing issues because years of coping with ancient and eccentric cookers had given me all the wrong reflexes.

The first major setback was was caused by the oven heating itself up to the temperature I'd told it I wanted and then just stayed there. This was quite an unexpected surprise. I'd completely forgotten that ovens did that. And because the oven never overheated itself, the vegetables roasting in it proved to be nowhere near ready when the stew/casserole/curry on top was thoroughly cooked. Fortunately stews/casseroles/curries are very forgiving of longer cooking times than they are expecting. It's the long, slow simmering that makes them so flavourful and my new hotplates had such exact fingertip temperature control that very long and very slow simmering was easily attained. "A stew boiled is a stew spoiled" as the old wives words of wisdom have it. They know what they are talking about, those old wives. Pay attention to them. I set the stew/casserole/curry to barely bubble and when the vegetables in the oven finally caught up with the simmering feast, the result was scrumptious.

I've been practising a lot and I think I've got the hang of it now. So do you want to come to dinner? I promise to try and guess who you are (obligatory movie joke for all you media fans out there...

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