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by Andy Crouch
Walk into a well-appointed kitchen in mass-affluent America, and amidst the gleaming countertops, the tastefully displayed cookware, and the sleek appliances, you will find a 48-inch-wide tribute to both prowess and virtue. It is not just an oven, and it is certainly not just a stove. It is a range, cognate with the wide-open spaces of our national dreams. It is a Viking—a conqueror—or a Wolf—a formidable beast—or a Thermador—its orotund Latinate swagger encoding what another brand, Imperial, makes plain.
The range is the spiritual heart of the modern kitchen. Hidden dishwashers and refrigerators may be the latest trend, but who hides their range? Indeed, displayed in its full glory, the range can spark that peculiarly male form of conversation, the competitive exchange of technical specs—as in the New Yorker cartoon that shows a wine-drinking guest and his host contemplating an expanse of gas burners: "Wow! The big guy! And what kind of B.T.U.'s am I looking at here?" (Probably about 18,000, by the way.)
The range is what the philosopher Albert Borgmann calls a device—a technological achievement whose hallmarks are, in Borgmann's words, "commodious availability." The range is commodious in two senses—first, its sheer size and potential output, and second, its concentration on a singular commodity, cooking heat, that can be measured with the precision of the British Thermal Unit. It is available in a way that the hearth, which it replaces, never was: with one turn of the pleasingly heavy control knobs, you have finely calibrated heat, from simmering to roaring, at your command.
The range, as it turns out, is not that useful for everyday cooking. Owners find that, absent dishwashing boys to do the dirty work, industrial-style ranges are hard to clean. The massive grates overlaying the gas burners reach cooking temperature so slowly that a Viking range takes longer to boil water than my mother's Whirlpool stove. Then, of course, there is the cost, up to $10,000, which means ...