For haters of high tech: the AGA cookstove from England

September 08, 1991|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Universal Press Syndicate

Sooner or later, I'm convinced, all the microchips we've recruited to make our lives easier are going to turn on us all at the same time.

My telephone answering machine, for instance, is induced by a clap of thunder to make a telephone call ON ITS OWN.

Whom the machine is calling remains a mystery. But somehow it reaches that mechanical voice from the telephone company that says something like: "The number you have dialed is no longer in service. Please check the listing and try your call again."

This microchip menace has been creeping up on us for some time now. Under the guise of convenience and versatility, these infinitesimal electronic brains have insinuated themselves into almost every home appliance. Where there was once an "on" and "off" switch, there is now a "control panel" that looks for all the world like the cockpit on a DC-10.

The irony, of course, is that these buttons, dials, levers, knobs, touch pads and indecipherable hieroglyphics make operating all these appliances more difficult. There are too many choices, too many decisions to make, too much mystery, confusion, frustration and stress.

You can't just bring home an appliance these days and plug it in and expect it to work. No, now you have to "program" it. You have to learn its technique and follow its instructions: Set day of week, set time of day, set on time, set off time, set function -- play, record, roast, rinse-and-hold -- press ENTER.

I'm about ready to revolt. I don't want to have to read a 14-page manual of gobbledygook to be able to make toast. I don't want to have to reprogram the answering machine and the microwave oven -- not to mention every digital clock in the house -- after a power outage.

What I want are appliances devoid of bells and whistles, beeps and buzzes, appliances long on performance and life-expectancy and short on electronic promises and push buttons.

The epitome of the back-to-basics appliance may well be the AGA cookstove, a lovable-looking and microchip-free monolith that came to these shores from England just five years ago.

Made by hand entirely of cast iron, not flimsy sheet metal, the AGA (Amalgamated Gas Accumulator) has no moving parts and no controls, and is always on and ready to use. It has marvelous contours, a substantial (900 to 1,000 pounds) presence and a price tag to match ($5,700 to $7,950).

But you have to understand, this is a lifetime kitchen stove, the stove you buy once and keep forever because its looks won't fade and it's virtually impossible for it to break down.

Invented in 1922 by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, the AGA has one small gas heating element that supplies constant heat to the hot plates on top and the ovens below. But the thing is so well-insulated it contributes very little heat to the room, even though it's always warm to the touch.

And with nary a dial, digital read out or microchip, it can bake, broil, boil, fry, grill, toast, stew, steam, roast and simmer.

And it can do all of these things at the same time. Of the three large hot plates on top, one is for simmering, one for boiling and one for warming. Of the ovens below two are for baking and roasting, one is for simmering and a fourth is for warming. Cooking on the AGA involves selecting the proper hot plate or oven or starting the process on one part of the stove and finishing it on another -- adjusting the location of a pan instead of adjusting a flame or a dial.

In England, the AGA has been the stove to aspire to for 60 years. Chuck and Di have one. So do Paul McCartney, James Herriot, Julie Christie and other notables. In this country, Dustin Hoffman cooks on an AGA and so does (wouldn't you know it?) Martha Stewart.

The remarkable (and remarkably refreshing) quality about the AGA is its simplicity. It does what it is supposed to do and, according to acquaintances who have one, it does it exceedingly well -- without programming, without a lot of button-pushing and without constant monitoring.

Nor is it a stove trying to look like a stereo system. It is as blatantly low-tech in appearance as it is in operation. It looks friendly, approachable, substantial and, well, warm. Unlike the microchip-laden appliances we've come to expect, the AGA doesn't look alien, like something you might find in the computer center at the Pentagon. It looks homey, even hearthlike.

What really matters is simplicity and enduring reliability and dependability. Instead of allowing ourselves to be dazzled by all the bells and whistles of available technology, we should be looking for appliances that take orders instead of give them.

Maybe we would all do well to remember that appliance technology is as imperfect as the humans who invented it and that, if you depend on it too much, you do so at your own peril.

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