From the December 2017/January 2018 Issue

Cooking Up Nostalgia

Writer Ren Miller
  • The cast iron Aga Dual Control three-oven cooker is one of the brand’s most popular models. “Pewter” (shown) is the current best-selling color.

The AGA cooker has traveled a storied path since its introduction as a multipurpose appliance and now stands ready for its second century.

The gleaming stainless steel ranges that dominate many kitchens today might lead you to believe there are no other options. That would be wrong. There’s also demand for ranges that lend a nostalgic or Old World ambience to kitchens. Just four years short of its 100th birthday, for example, the AGA cooker has weathered the changing demands of chefs and home cooks while retaining its 19th century country-estate good looks.

The AGA wasn’t the first cooker designed for use in homes, but it is the only one invented by a Nobel Prize winner who had no background in kitchen appliance design. Gustaf Dalén, a Swedish scientist, was the chief engineer and later managing director of Aktiebolaget Svenska Gasaccumulator (AGA). His work focused primarily on developing illumination devices for lighthouses and buoys using acetylene, an extremely explosive gas that produces an ultra-bright white light.

Dalén lost his sight in an explosion while working with acetylene but continued to manage the company and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1912 for his work with acetylene. It was during his convalescence after the explosion that he realized that his wife, Elma, worked constantly to tend to their old-fashioned cooker. Wanting to lighten her load, he came up with a design in 1922 that combined two large hot plates and two ovens into one unit made of cast iron with a durable enamel exterior: the AGA cooker.

Here we should note that a cooker is somewhat equivalent to what Americans call a stove or range, though both of those words have slightly different meanings in some European countries. Plus, the cookers did more than cook. The first ones were fired by coal and had to be kept burning all day so they were ready at mealtimes. The cast iron retained heat, so they could be used also to warm a room, heat water for bathing, dry laundry and handle other household tasks. That made them popular appliances on country estates that didn’t have the conveniences of city homes.

Another reason for the AGA cooker’s success is David Ogilvy, the company’s first door-to-door salesman. While working for the company, the British-born Ogilvy wrote The Theory and Practice of Selling the AGA Cooker. Thirty years later, Forbes magazine called it the finest sales instruction manual ever written. The same David Ogilvy went on to found the legendary advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.

The AGA cooker was introduced to England in 1929 and quickly found its way into the hearts of the nation. Production eventually moved from Sweden to the English town of Coalbrookdale, an iron-ore smelting center where the cookers are still made by the AGA Rangemaster Group, whose U.S. subsidiary is AGA Marvel. The first AGA Cook Book was published in 1934 in the U.S., indicating the cookers’ growing popularity outside of Great Britain.

Although the exterior today looks much the same as when they were introduced, AGA cookers have changed considerably in function:

• Originally the hotplate and oven temperatures were regulated by their distance from the burner. One oven was ideal for roasting and baking, the other for warming. One hotplate could be used for boiling, the other for simmering (each hotplate could accommodate two or three pans). Now the temperatures are controlled individually using a touch-screen panel on the top front of the unit, and the cooker no longer has to be kept on all day unless you choose to do so.

• Dual-fuel and electric models were introduced as time and technology advanced. The radiant heat and insulated design minimize fuel consumption and create optimal cooking conditions without the drying, direct heat used in some other ranges.

• The cookers are now available also with grates on top, up to five ovens, in various sizes (including sizes found in U.S. kitchens) and in retro, contemporary, French chic and professional design styles in a range of colors.

In 2000, the BBC television network named the AGA cooker one of the top three design icons of the 20th century (after the Coca-Cola® contour bottle and the VW™ bug), and the cookers are now found in 750,000 households worldwide. Owners typically become “proud Aganauts, a society of epicureans that boast the cookers’ supreme talent for generating better tasting, more nutritious food and its exceptional endurance in the kitchen,” according to the company’s website (agamarvel.com).

“Throughout the last century, AGA earned its place in history for iconic design and gourmet results, and as many owners would tell you, the ultimate cooking experience,” AGA Marvel President Brad Stauffer says. “And we continue to innovate to stay relevant to the cooking habits of modern society and the hectic schedules of American homes. Our latest collections are today’s incarnation of the 19th century design, including AGA Mercury and Elise ranges with induction technology, digital controls, expanded options and other conveniences.”

Prices vary based on style, fuel type, size and other features, but a cast iron AGA Dual Control three-oven electric or natural gas cooker typically ranges from $16,000 to $17,000. Check the company’s website for New Jersey sources.