The Albany Hot Weather Kitchen in 1919

Every night before I went to sleep as a kid Grandma would tell me “When Grandma was a Girl” stories. I was especially fascinated by her tales of cooking in the summer.

Over the winter huge blocks of ice were cut out of the Hudson and packed tightly in straw or sawdust in the brick ice houses that dotted the shore and islands in the River. Come summer the blocks would be cut into smaller sections with ice saws to fit home ice boxes. Early in the morning before it got very hot the ice man would drive his wagon through the streets delivering the ice; he would bring it into the house using huge ice tongs and put it into the ice box or refrgerator. There was an ice delivery at least every two days. You had to be careful remember to empty the “drip” pan under the refrigerator at least 2x a day or you would have a flood of water on the floor. (Bessie, the Airedale Terrier, was usually the beneficiary of the drip pan contents.)

They lived in Arbor Hill near North Swan, not far from the River. In later years I wondered about people who lived in Pine Hills which was farther away, and just started to be developed in the early 1900s. Based on some sleuthing by our merry band of Friends of Albany History we discovered there was a pond north of Melrose and west of Holmesdale from which ice was harvested, and there was an ice house to serve that area.

If you wanted to get some chipped ice for a cold drink or to put in the hand cranked ice cream freezer you used the really scary ice chipper. (Deathly sharp with several tines – there was an old one in our basement Gram used to weed the garden when I was a kid.)

She used to say that cooking was awful in the summer. Although by 1900 there were gas and even electric stoves, they were few and far between. Most everyone had a huge cast iron stove that burned wood or coal. To use them you had to get a good fire going that heated the whole stove and the whole kitchen. Great in the winter.. not so much in the summer. (A local company, Rathbone and Sard, made the Acorn stove – it became a famous national brand; she told me that the same way we use the word “Kleenex” for tissue, they called the stove the “Acorn.)

But women still had to feed their families. By the time she was in her teens there were gas hot plates that worked like a Coleman camping stove and even electric hotplates. I was most intrigued by what she called the ” fireless cooker”. (There was one of those in the basement too, I later discovered. )

It was an insulated container that came in large and small sizes. You heated up a couple of “stones”, special disks I think made of a ceramic like material. They were heated on the top of the stove (which seemed to defeat the purpose – but you didn’t have to keep the oven running for hours I guess) and put in the “box” and you could bake in the fireless cooker (even make bread). There were special baking/cooking dishes that were sold as accessories, but she said they were a waste of money and cast iron worked just fine.

We used a small fireless stove for camping when I was a kid.. the “stones” were heated in the campfire.

She told me before the fireless cooker Mama used bricks the same way in some kind of jury-rigged insulated box Papa made. Papa also built her an outdoor brick oven.. they were lucky enough to have a large deep backyard, but Mama rarely used it because she had build a fire to heat it up, and she lacked the knack. So unless one of her older kids was on hand it was mostly a decorative garden feature.

Hooray for electric refrigherators, the microwave, air con and Grub Hub.

Julie O’Connor


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