Coal Stove Toast

Coal stove toast requires a coal stove, which we do not have, but Nana does. Nana resists many forms of modern kitchen technology and swears by her coal oven with a gas-fueled stovetop. The stove looks like it belongs in a museum. It’s ancient, dark, and hulking, and no one else I know has anything like it.

In her small kitchen in the back of the house, the oversized stove eats up nearly a third of the floor space. It sits along the right side of the wall with a black coal bucket tucked in next to its right front leg. Only a few feet of space separate the stove from the slate-covered counter and enamel sink across the way. When it’s primed and producing lots of heat, it reminds me of a locomotive at the station, huffing and puffing before it lets loose over the tracks.

When Nana needs a higher temperature for whatever she’s making, she digs into the bucket of dark, shiny coal nuggets with a mini-shovel that’s already propped inside. Then she steps to the left to pry open one of the iron discs covering the deep belly of the oven. With a loud scrape-y swoosh, she dumps the coal inside to kick up some extra heat for my toast.

I often walk down to Nana’s to hang out because I love to watch her cook and bake. Her technique is so much more graceful and engrossing than Mom’s, who stirs and pours ingredients without an ounce of flair. Cooking is a chore to Mom while Nana has transformed it into artful self-expression. She sifts flour as many as seven times for cakes and when she adds a pinch of salt from her green Depression-era glass dish, she raises her hand far above the bowl before rubbing her fingers together to release the grains. Nana embraces the kitchen and produces magically light baked goods and scrumptious supper dishes for us year round. Like a master scientist, she knows just how much coal is required to bake a cake, roast a turkey or make me toast. Her kitchen seems like an old-fashioned laboratory, and even Mom and Dad are uncertain of her methods. 

Each morning she makes me breakfast because Dad drops me off on his way to school, where he teaches eighth grade social studies. Nana’s house sits at the halfway point between home and Roosevelt Elementary, so I walk from there.

“Ready for some toast?” she asks after I shed my coat and books.

On a cold morning, the heat coming off that stove feels almost tropical compared to the winter weather outside. When Nana has to finally trade in her coal furnace for an oil one a couple of years later, she complains for the rest of her days that she’s always sitting in a draft. And I believe her. She layers a cardigan over every housedress unless she’s perched beside that stove.

In hindsight, I agree with her loyalty to coal. Her stove in the kitchen churns out a potent, rich heat that repels every draft and every wisp of cold air that dares to rush in through an open door or a poorly sealed window. 

“How many pieces today?” she asks as she gathers her tools.

“Two, I guess.” That’s what I have every morning.

First, Nana removes one of the iron covers from the stovetop to reveal the coal she shoveled in earlier. I love peeking down inside the stove to see and feel the source of the heat. The coals sit snugly above an orange under glow that hints of something mysterious and sinister. I bet this is a sneak preview of what hell looks like. Dark. Incinerator hot. Red-orange heat lurking below, like a volcano about to erupt.

Nana holds a long, two-pronged fork in one hand and then grabs a slice of bread from the loaf sitting on the counter. She gingerly inserts the prongs into the middle of the slice and then lowers it into the stove’s pit of heat to toast.

“Won’t it fall off, Nana?” I always worry about bread casualties.

“No. It’s all right,” she assures me. 

But the bread is airy, downy soft. I fret it’ll slide off into the hot coals. She holds the bread inside for a half minute, maybe more. My eyes lock onto her face, searching for a sign of concern about the bread burning or losing its grip on the fork.

Suddenly, a faintly sweet, yeasty aroma hits my nose. At the same time Nana pulls the bread out of the coal fire, removes the fork, and begins again on the other side.

“How do you know when to take it out?” I ask, like an eager toast apprentice.

“Oh. I don’t know. You just know.”

 “Well, how do you know?”

“It only takes a little while, and I’ve been making toast like this for a long time.”

And then the second side rises from the coals, hot and charred, but not too black.

I’m sitting at the white enamel kitchen table that looks out onto the small backyard. Nana has a plate ready in front of me and moves the fork with my toast over top. She sets it down and pulls back on the fork to set it free from the tines.

The smell of coal hangs in the air. Faint waves of heat radiate off the toast and bounce off my cheeks.


“Yes, please.”

Nana stands at my side, like a personal toast valet, and dips a knife into the butter. It’s been sitting out all morning and is already soft. Nana has a knack for scooping the right amount of butter onto her knife, and she rarely has to go back for more.

This final phase of toast service makes a racket, like somebody using sandpaper in a wood shop. My toast is dry as a shingle, and Nana’s butter-filled knife reaches into every corner to fill each nook and cranny along the way. It takes several noisy scrapes to coat the entire surface, and I study each stroke while my mouth waters in anticipation.

Then, she ceremoniously cuts my toast on a diagonal, making the start of my day a wee bit more special. Mom never does the diagonal cut at home when she makes toast or sandwiches. She’s a no-nonsense horizontal cutter, and I appreciate Nana’s attempt to elevate this simple meal.

Then, finally, I pick up a neat triangle and bring it to my mouth. 

CRUNCH. With an ooze of warm butter.

The coals produce a campfire-charcoal-nuttiness absent in the toast at my house. This version has an ideal amount of dark char, and the butter over top — not the boring Fleischman’s margarine Mom buys — adds the perfect complement of salty creaminess to its crispy surface.

Nana, Taid (pronounced “Tide,” Welsh for grandfather) and I sit and eat. Music spills out of the radio sitting on a small cabinet nearby. We gaze out the window, on alert for an early robin or the neighbor’s cat Pepper. Then we read the sky, looking for clues about the day’s weather. Will it snow? Or will that patch of blue in the distance bring a warmer afternoon?

The topic switches to student life. The big pine out back reminds me of the poem I’ve got to memorize for Mrs. Krum, my cranky fourth grade teacher. I begin to recite “Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer. 

“It’s not too long,” I say, and I’m up to, “‘A tree that may in Summer wear a nest of robins in her hair.’ That’s my favorite part.” I pop the last corner of toast into my mouth and wash it down with a final sip of tea. The clock strikes the half-hour, which means a WKAP news break and my cue to shift from guest of honor at my grandparents’ table to capable schoolgirl. I stand, brush toast crumbs off the front of my dress and bundle up for the fifteen-minute walk to school.

Nana hovers behind and, as usual, repeats her daily reminder to look both ways when I cross the street and watch for ice on the way down her steps.

“Yeah, I know Nana. I’ll be careful.”

I push through the door and stand on the front porch to adjust to the frigid air. I turn, give her a final wave and tuck my chin inside my scarf. I shake off the cold and my steps turn brisk and purposeful. The coal stove toast fortifies my stride and my spirit. The biting wind reminds me that the sweet, cushy part of my day is over. Now, there’s work to do and I’m hungry for what lies ahead. 




Image: photo Cast Iron Stove by Kevin ButzUnsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Linda Miller
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  1. Thank you for your wonderful story! It reminds me of my grandmother making breakfast for me. She didn’t have a coal stove, but she did have the “magical flair” that made cooking feel like art. My favorite breakfast we called “yellow toast”. She buttered the bread and then toasted it in her oven.


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