Driving into the yard of the Antique Stove Hospital in coastal Little Compton, Rhode Island, I saw a scrapyard of metal poking through thick weeds in front of a rambling, shingled barn. Two big dogs met my car, stretching as they rose from a nap.
This was the beginning of a multiday adventure for me: I relentlessly trailed the Stove Doctors, Emery Pineo, 77, and his son Brandon, 43, watching them transform the rusting, disassembled parts back into gorgeous stoves that I was itching to cook on.
As a longtime antique lover with a particular interest in vintage cooking, I was in heaven. Every inch of their workshop, from piles on the floor to hooks on the ceiling, was filled with old cast-iron pans; Victorian wood-burning heaters covered in curlicues; prim little lime green–and-yellow 1920s gas ranges; and broad, black cast-iron cookstoves. There was a room filled with bins of tagged stove parts, and another with machinery for sandblasting and welding. A showroom and attic were stuffed with not only fully restored stoves ready to sell or be picked up by their owners but also a vintage Ford, a stunning classic wood boat, a working player piano, shelves of toy-size cast-iron stoves, and even streamlined toasters and antique breakfast gadgets.
Brandon and Emery indulged my desire to learn about everything. They’re both former teachers and great raconteurs, spinning hilarious stories of stoves and other vintage treasures found in improbable places featuring the occasional celebrity (Jay Leno) and reclusive billionaire clan hideaway (Naushon, the Forbes family’s extremely private island).
I got my chance to cook, too, on a freshly restored Wincroft black cast-iron beauty. It was as if the clock turned back more than 100 years to the day it was newly made. Brandon and Emery strip each stove down to its smallest parts and then clean and meticulously rebuild it to fully working, like-new condition. As I unloaded my groceries, Brandon welded and painted a plain sheet of metal until it was a custom-fit chimney pipe to vent “my” stove’s smoke.
He let me choose my cookware from a collection of gorgeous vintage cast-iron pans that almost made me weep. I picked a big, sturdy skillet and a huge, graceful round griddle. I planned to test myself as well as the stove, making scones; pizza; and our recipe for Cast Iron Pan-Roasted Chicken Breasts with Root Vegetables, which goes from the stove to the oven. I wasn’t sure how difficult it would be to moderate the oven’s heat so that I could bake delicate scones or get searing-hot temperatures for crisp pizza crust. And the chicken dish would be a testament to whether I could keep the chicken juicy while getting the skin brown and crispy and the fibrous vegetables tender.
It wasn’t like I had electronics to maintain my oven’s temperature. All I had was a bin of wood and a half ton of cast-iron stove. It had a quaint-looking temperature gauge on the oven door, but I had no idea how accurate it would be or even how to begin to cook on this thing. Brandon got me set up but left me to figure it out.
First, I was surprised at how little wood it took to get the oven good and hot. I started to feel the stove burners, which were simple round openings covered by disks of cast iron, get toasty. We’d filled a huge old tea kettle with water and set it on the back burner, farthest from the firebox, and it soon began to steam gently and steadily. I noticed that of the six burners on the stovetop, the two nearest the firebox on the left were hot, the center two were medium-hot, and the right two were medium-low to low.
To sear the chicken, I moved the pan rather than a temperature dial. When I wanted to get the pan extra-hot, I used a tool to remove the cast-iron disk covering the far-left burner and put the pan right over the hole’s open flame. Suddenly the chicken started sizzling fiercely and its skin began to crisp. Delicious smells wafted up. When I thought it was going too fast, I moved the pan to the right, away from the firebox, and the sizzling became more gentle and turned into a simmer. Easy-peasy.
I kept an eye on the temperature dial on the oven. When it hovered around 350 degrees, roughly medium-hot, I decided to bake my scones. I made the mistake of bending down to open the oven as I would at home—and got a blast of heat and smoke right in the face. Brandon pointed out a foot pedal, like on a piano, just under the oven door. After that, I remembered to use it to open the oven. Later I rested a pot holder on the top of the stove while I looked in the oven and immediately scorched it. This fierce little beast of a stove reminded me that it’s not from 2021.
While I timed the scones' baking, I also found myself paying attention to their scent. Since I had no idea if the oven was going to run fast or slow, whether I’d be pulling out a pan of burnt charcoal lumps or lightly browned, fluffy scones, I had to stay alert. My nose told me when the scones were perfect. I shared them around and we ate them quickly, tearing them open as steam wafted out. As it happened, the stove was right on target, time-wise. My confidence began to build.
I needed the oven to get to 500 degrees to make my pizza. I added wood a few sticks at a time and watched the temperature gauge climb. I stretched and topped the dough on the griddle and popped it in. In minutes I smelled the buttery, melting cheese and the bready aroma of the rising crust. I didn’t have to peek because I could tell when it was done: It smelled like perfect, bubbling, crusty pizza—and it was.
Meanwhile the oven began to cool down to the 400s, the temperature at which I wanted to roast my skillet full of chicken and vegetables. I hit the food pedal and slid the pan in. Like a pro now, I fed the fire a few sticks to keep the heat steady until the mingling smells of roasting chicken and shallots wafted out.
I removed the pan and took out the chicken, which was perfectly cooked, and slid the vegetables back in to get some golden edges. The bubbling juices and roasty-sweet scent of potatoes and carrots let me know when it was time to bring the skillet back out of the oven, replace the golden roasted chicken on top, and sprinkle chopped herbs over the whole dish. Lunch was served.
Later, I realized that cooking on a cast-iron wood stove is a lot like grilling on charcoal, where you adjust the position of food and fire for optimal results. You don’t have the precision of a modern stovetop or oven, so you learn to rely on your senses and watch, smell, listen to, and touch the food to know what it needs.
My time at the Antique Stove Hospital went by in a flash. I’d wanted to cook on a cast-iron stove since I was a kid visiting Old Sturbridge Village and other historical sites and always felt frustrated that kitchen exhibits were strictly hands-off. I finally fulfilled my dream—and learned that it felt natural and pretty wonderful to make food the way our ancestors did. This experience helped me remember that our senses are the best cooking tools we have.
Someday I might be able to buy myself one of these beautiful old stoves, but for now, I’m content.