The Bushwhacked economy has at least one upside: It has put crazy things that once seemed sane farther out of reach. Once upon a time, like a year ago, many cooks would not even blink at spending $10,000 or more on a stove better suited to a small restaurant than the average heat-and-eat home kitchen. Now that the near-depression and credit drought have taken hold, the gleam is off the stainless steel.
So what to buy if you're upgrading your kitchen in tight times? My suggestion is the same as with quality ingredients these days: Look backward.
Like heirloom tomatoes and heritage pork, stoves manufactured in the first years after World War II are superior to the hybrids foisted on today's microwave world. They are not only gorgeous—with sleek lines and gleaming enamel and chrome—they also were built to last. (As I always confess, my Wedgewood is as old as I am but in much better condition.) They cost less than the incredible modern hulks in kitchen showrooms—those all-too-tempting Vikings and Wolfs and BlueStars—and they actually appreciate in value, like any good antique. One similar to mine, which cost $1,199 in 1992, was recently on Craigslist in North Carolina for $9,500.
Those sellers may be dreaming, but these stoves are like the 1950s Pontiacs still rolling around Havana, compared with the Hummers so many cooks purchased. Even if they have not been assiduously maintained from the beginning, vintage stoves are easily restored. Ours was rebuilt inside and out by Antique Stove Heaven in Los Angeles and looked showroom-fresh when we uncrated it back in Manhattan. It's as powerful as a restaurant-style range, with 15,000 British thermal units, but it looks like home to me. (Having gone through restaurant school and cooked in restaurants where the only color is gunmetal gray, I find nothing romantic about industrial appliances.) It's the most elegant workhorse imaginable, with four burners, a griddle, two ovens, and two broilers. And it has charming retro touches, like cooking times and temperatures for '50s foods printed on the inside of the oven doors.
So many other essentials in life are clearly improved in their latest incarnation: Phones are smaller and portable; stereos are downsized to ear buds; cars are safer and run on less fuel. But stoves are a basic that should stick to the basics: The fewer bells and whistles, the less need for bell-and-whistle repairmen. Motherboard is not a word that should ever be associated with the kitchen—put computer technology in a stove, and you're asking for a crash. Google "I hate my Viking" these days, and you get a sense of how many things can go wrong with techno-overload. Some of these ranges combine electric and gas elements, which is a recipe for trouble, as is microwave or convection capability. This kind of overdesign is what killed combination tuner/turntables—one goes, and the other dies from neglect.
Vintage stoves are different. Mine runs solely on gas and is solidly built, with plenty of cast iron and with serious insulation so that it retains heat and cooks splendiferously. It has a built-in clock and timer as well as a shelf that folds out when I need more space while using all four burners. And it is so functional. Unlike vintage refrigerators, which are energy sucks with only enough space to keep milk from spoiling and to freeze a tray of ice, these stoves are totally suited to the way we cook today. When I'm having a dinner party, I can be roasting duck legs in one oven while lemon-curd-and-almond cake bakes at a different temperature in the other. Admittedly, the stove lacks a grill, but I do have a grill pan that heats fast and stays hot on my venerable burners.
Repairs are ridiculously easy, too, if indeed they are ever needed. Early on, I replaced a small part myself while one of the owners of Antique Stove Heaven talked me through it on the phone. Almost every element—grill pans, burner grates, clocks, timers, oven doors—can be bought online and popped in or out.
We had to go all the way across the country to snare our prize 17 years ago, but today vintage stoves have acquired an almost cultlike following. (Even Rachael Ray uses one on her show.) Besides Antique Stove Heaven, Antique Gas Stoves, AntiqueAppliances.com, Dream Stoves, Buckeye Appliance, and others all either sell directly or will steer buyers to vintage stoves. Craigslist often has listings, as does eBay. Word of warning, though: It's best to snag one from the late 1940s or the 1950s. Earlier, and they are too small, with constricted oven space; later than that, the look changes—it's not retro, just dated.
The mystery to me is why we ever veered away from these gorgeous pieces of machinery. Julia Child can be blamed, in part. She famously used one of the first huge Garland restaurant ranges in her home kitchen. (It's in the Smithsonian today, in working condition but not hooked up to gas.) As food became more about trends than about sustenance in this country, the most basic appliance was marketed as one that could send a clear message: Here lives a Wolfgang Puck wannabe. By the early '80s, downsized versions of those stoves were coming onto the market, from Garland and Wolf in particular. Fred Carl started Viking around that time after his wife could not find the range of her dreams. (Ironically, it was a vintage Chambers.) He used to say he would have been happy to sell 1,000 stoves a year. By 2006, he was moving that many every week.
Viking stoves took off so wildly, in fact, that the company opened a cooking school in the same town as its factory, an inn to lodge customers who made the journey to Greenwood, Miss., and a restaurant to feed them, too. According to the Wall Street Journal, that tourism industry has been collapsing. Twenty percent of Viking's factory workers have been laid off, and some have been forced to go back to their sad old jobs in chicken-processing plants.