By Jonathan Reynolds
New York Times Magazine
August 21, 2005
Solar cooking is more than just good for the planet.
It’s getting harder and harder to save the world, particularly in the meteorogicially challenged Northeast. Intrigued by my friend the writer Patricia Bosworth’s fervor for solar cooking — using the sun alone for fuel — I contacted one of its best-known and most passionate proponents, the figurative painter and sculptor Mary Frank. She enthusiastically invited me to lunch.
But what sort of daffy cuisine would this be? And why would anyone want to cook this way anyhow, unless they were climbing Everest or-paddling the Amazon? Don’t most meals cook with an environmentally acceptable amount of fuel that’s readily available?
Maybe in North America and Europe. But in the third, or emerging, or developing (choose your p.c.) world, solar cooking could be a bona fide revolution. In sub-Saharan Africa and large parts of India and China, one chief source of cooking fuel is wood, and women traditionally spend much of their day collecting or buying it. Forests are stripped, erosion destroys the arable land and the air fills up with ozone-damaging vapors. Diseases caused by fumes from burning wood range from cancer to respiratory problems to blindness.
The good news is, there’s good news.
At the first sign of sun, I dashed up to Woodstock, N.Y., to the 11 lovely acres Mary shares with her husband of 10 years, the musicologist Leo Treitler. They had set up two kinds of solar cookers on the back patio of their one-story house-cum-studio: the first, called a CooKit, was a lightweight, folding reflector made of cardboard to which laminated aluminum foil has been attached, looking much like one of those reflectors from the good old days when we thought too much sun at Jones Beach wasn ‘t nearly enough. The second was more elaborate, a 26-by-21-by-9-inch box whose bottom was painted black to absorb the heat, and which was connected to a shiny reflector panel perched at a 45-degree angle above. Sunlight of relatively short wavelengths bounces off the reflectors into the black interior, where it is trapped and turned into heat. “Cooking With Sunshine,” by Lorraine Anderson and Rick Palkovic, points out that it’s not unlike the heat in a car with its windows closed on a hot summer day. The cookers can be used anywhere between the 60-degree parallels — say, most of Canada down to Tierra del Fuego — and the closer to the equator, the longer cooking time you have. Since food safety is a factor of time and temperature, the hours it takes to solar cook renders the food risk-free.
Mary, a soft-spoken and very political 72, was mixing a pound of shrimp with some vegetables and coconut milk in one pot and a chicken with some spices in another. She prepared this in front of her fire-engine red vintage-40’s Chambers range, which is right next to her G.E. fridge, on whose aluminum door she has painted orange-and-green nasturtiums be-cause “I don’t see why people want things that look like airplanes in their kitchen,” she said, placing the ingredients in a black pot and covering it.
“You don’t need to add water to anything except grains because the food makes its own liquid. It tastes so good because nothing dries it out.” The temperature of these cookers hovers between 200 and 275 degrees Fahrenheit, resulting in a slow process not unlike that of a crock-pot, so that all the juices and flavors are nudged together.