There is more sexual vocabulary to a 1950s O’Keefe & Merritt stove than you might imagine. The central component of the valve is the shaft, which needs to be lubricated. The valve itself fits into the burner, which is the female end. These things were taught to me by a man named Diamond Jones, who showed me I could work with my hands in ways I never thought possible. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 1984 my husband and I bought our first house: a beach cottage in Santa Monica. When the previous owner vacated, he left behind the piano and the stove. I was thrilled to accept both. Although the piano was a handsome piece of furniture, it turned out to be completely unsalvageable from a musical standpoint. However, the stove was flawless and would soon become something of an obsession for me.
It’s ironic, I suppose, because I don’t cook in any interesting or creative way. My fascination with the stove had nothing to do with food. Rather, I loved what it signified: a sturdy, straightforward, mechanical (as in nonelectronic) representation of a simpler time. It was a presence that sat in the center of my kitchen, and therefore in the center of my household, and therefore at the center of my family, and therefore at the center of my universe, and somehow anchored it.
For 11 years, life with my stove was uneventful. The fun began when my husband and I moved to a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley and brought the stove with us. Pretty soon one thing after another began to break down. Once the pilot light extinguished itself and the oven stopped working, I called a local appliance store, and they sent out a man we’ll call Dan.
Dan was exhausted, probably underpaid, and definitely overwhelmed. He was also an old hand at fixing stoves. Well, some stoves, that is. Not mine. The most he was able to do was repair the pilot light.
About a year later, I went to work for a month in Los Angeles, where O’Keefe & Merritt stoves are more commonplace. At this point, the pilot light was igniting but the burners were not firing up. I decided to consult someone about my stove and its idiosyncrasies. I saw an ad for a store called Antique Stove Heaven; I called and was referred to Diamond.
When I described my stove woes to him, he told me I needed to clean the valves. I asked him how and he said to bring a valve in to the store. So I called my husband in New York and asked him to open the stove, find a valve (somehow), and send one to me. Luckily, my husband was both indulgent and mechanical enough to be up to the task.