Made in L.A.: My 1940s O'Keefe & Merritt gets her close-up in Saveur

Yep, that's me in Saveur Magazine. I'm not used to being in front of the camera. In fact, the reason I became a journalist was to observe, report and have a legitimate excuse to be nosey.When I wrote this piece I spoke to home cooks, chefs, collectors, historians and stove repair people who are just as passionate about these old beauties as I am. Unfortunately, some great material didn't make it into the magazine so I wanted to share what they said here:

“I have friends with swanky 10 burner ranges and while they are massive and certainly get the job done, I say, that’s nice, but no thanks. My stove is sexy.It says turn me on, turn me off; it just has a kind of sensitivity and finesse that you don’t find with other stoves,” muses Lisa Waltz about her early 1950s Wedgewood stove. Waltz, a former caterer, has made over 1,000 gingerbread houses for charity and fed hundreds of doctors - 80 at a time since her husband is the emergency residency director at UCLA - all on her four burner, two oven, two broiler 60 plus year-old appliance. Her favorite dish: a succulent roasted beef tenderloin with Rosemary Gorgonzola sauce. “It’s full proof. At this point I’m convinced the oven knows how to make it without me.”

I understand Waltz’s attraction. I’ve had my O’Keefe and Merritt stove since 1994, it’s never had to be repaired and a low whisper of heat can achieve just the right simmer when making a Mac and Cheese roux (no scorching) and a roiling, boiling pot of water is minutes away with a burner cranked high.

But when I recently renovated the kitchen of my 1927 bungalow in West Hollywood, I thought about abandoning my beloved stove for a Viking or a Wolf. I even flirted with a red Betrazzoni but in the end, I couldn’t give up the shiny griddle (pancakes, please), the “Grillevator” broiler (yes, it goes up and down like an elevator), and since I’m a baker, I was particularly attached to the oven. While it’s not convection, it bakes like one with its innovative heat circulating design, superb insulation and a thermostat system that has helped me perfect Meyer lemon tarts and Rose Geranium Olive Oil Cakes. I also felt pride of place since O’Keefe and Merritt, like Wedgewood, was a Los Angeles company that had its hey day during the post-war industrial boom in a region that produced some of the best mid-century design in the country.

The streamlined styling of these classic appliances was at its height between 1946 and 1955 explains Skip Lau, who restores old stoves in Ventura, California and wrote Old Stoves are Hot; A History of Antique Cooking Stoves. (2012, Pilot Light Press). “Made during the golden era of American manufacturing, they were designed to be simple, durable and repairable,” he said adding that emphasizing quality is a value of the past. “If you buy a new stove today, they’ll only make parts for six or eight years and then you’re supposed to buy a new one 10 years later.”

That sort of planned obsolescence wasn’t part of the manufacturing doctrine for companies like Wedgewood, O’Keefe and Merritt or Chambers, all of which can still be found in kitchens across the country. These beauties were assembled by hand (there are 1000s of parts for just one stove), the pieces were stamped out on site using the best materials like galvanized steel, chrome and porcelain making them rust, stain and burn resistant. Fortunately a repair industry has flourished not only because there is a demand, but because there are plenty of vintage parts available.  

Jimmy Rodriguez, of Antique Stoves, who refurbished my stove and re-porcelained it Tiffany blue (my choice), says he prefers the curves of an O’Keefe and Merritt. “They’re sexy,” he said. Whereas Steve Sassone, a vintage parts dealer who raves about the BBQ sauce he cooks for up to six hours on the simmer burners of his stove, loves the cleaner lines of Wedgewood.  “These allegiances are kind of like the Ford guys versus the Chevy guys in the 1950s,” observes Lau. “Even though they were both quality products, you were loyal to one or the other.”

I guess I’m an O’Keefe and Merritt girl. Like Rodriguez, I like her curves. I also like that right there inside the oven door she gives me over 40 simple recipes:  Biscuits, 450 degrees, 12-15 minutes; Standing Rib Roast, 325 degrees, 30 minutes per pound and one of my favorites, Pie Meringue, 325 degrees, 20-25 minutes.

Even chefs, like Suzanne Tracht of Jar restaurant in Los Angeles, appreciate the post-war ingenuity and quality. While she certainly has access to some of the finest commercial cooking ranges, she had been eyeing an O’Keefe and Merritt in her friend’s garage for years. When she bought her house, it was the first thing she purchased. It has since braised and broiled many a Sunday dinner. “It produces amazing heat, it’s beautiful, it’s the focal point of the whole kitchen and it’s not too big,” she said. “It’s the perfect example that great things come in small packages.” 

1 comment:

  1. cool post, neat blog. those o'keefes are pretty rad.