Arline “AJ” Lederman didn’t intentionally set out to study what open-fire cooking means for the world’s woods and women.
For years, the art historian split her time between her Hoboken home and rural Afghanistan, studying traditional embroidery that women there specialize in. But during the village visits, she saw that women spend most of their time on something else: searching for anything to burn — sticks, leaves, animal dung — and that as a result much of the country’s former forests had been stripped bare. The problems didn’t end there: back home, they and their families coughed over open fires in smoke-filled rooms.
“I saw how hard their lives were because of the need for fuel,” Lederman says. “It was wrenching to see that women who had such skill and talent, who could create such a high level of beauty, were trapped.” Trapped, that is, in the constant search for flammable fuel.
After retiring from academia, Lederman’s memories of Afghan women crouched over fires stuck with her. That’s when her friend Mary Frank told her about something called solar cooking — the no-fuel, no-emissions, no-cost method to bake anything from lentil curry to peach pie, simply by reflecting the rays of the sun.
“I instantly realized that solar cooking was an answer for the Afghan women and, by extension, for billions of women around the world,” Lederman says.
That’s right — billions. According to the World Health Organization, nearly half the planet’s population — some 3 billion people — subsists on food cooked over open fires. That may sound romantic, but the traditional task is devastatingly dangerous and destructive. Lung cancer, emphysema and blindness can all result from daily hours spent cooking over a smoldering fire, making cigarettes look like vitamins. Each year, an estimated 1.5 million people lose their lives to diseases or complications caused by indoor cooking pollution, including, on average, 500,000 women and 800,000 children.
The environment is another casualty as the resulting black carbon is a major contributor to global warming. Just as our power plants and tailpipe emissions affect people around the world, all those smoldering fires in India, Sudan, China and beyond likewise impact us.
Solar ovens, on the other hand, call for no fuel, require no flame and produce no smoke. Women no longer need strip trees for wood, which provides another valuable asset: time. Give a woman a solar oven and, in a place like Afghanistan, you change her life.
“You see a woman who previously could do nothing but look for wood, then stand and cook and take in all of that smoke, become liberated when she gets a solar cooker,” Frank says. “You see hundreds of cookers — it looks like a religious phenomenon, these shiny objects out in the desert — but there’s no one there.” Now, those women can spend that extra time with children, tending livestock or learning a new skill.
And they don’t just cook dinner. Solar cookers’ heat can sterilize water for safe drinking, something we take for granted but a billion people worldwide lack.
All of which is why the United Nations and UNESCO frequently sponsors international solar cooking conferences.
Back in New York, Lederman — inspired by Frank’s shining solar reviews — bought her own solar oven, a basic unit called the CooKit that sells for around $39. (The many types of solar cookers include DIY models from cardboard and foil or even retrofitted satellite dishes, which get hot enough to deep fry.) Lederman’s oven-style cooker uses a simple reflector to concentrate sunlight onto a black pot. When the sun is high in the sky, it heats far faster than a car simmering in a summer parking lot, bringing the pot to a whopping 350°F or more.
Lederman experimented with eggs and soon advanced to more daring dishes. Into the cooker’s pot she tossed raw chicken, mushrooms, tomatoes, shallots, fresh herbs and a dash of white wine, then let the sun get to work on the savory concoction. Several hours later, she had a pot of chicken chasseur. The next time, she invited company.
“Your friends can hardly believe that this wonderful dish just cooked in a pot out in the sun,” Lederman says.
In other words, many people’s reactions echo none other than Ruth Reichl’s, who wrote in Gourmet in 2004 of a solar cooker: “It was light, it was easy to use, and it worked perfectly.”
Converted, Lederman began serving as vice president and United Nations representative for the Solar Cookers International, holding demonstrations at local universities — where vegetarian chili goes over well — and teaming up with Frank to feed UN representatives from Africa, the Middle East and beyond. At one event they lined up 18 solar cookers to demonstrate the technique to nearly 100 people from around 60 different countries, baking fish, bread, beans, meat, vegetables, rice, curry, cake, pie and more. Frank recalls one woman from the Côte d’Ivoire who curiously touched a pot and jerked back, exclaiming “Je me suis brûlée!”
But she quickly realized the tool’s power. “She put her arms around me,” Frank recalls. “It was so amazing.”
While the simple technology’s primary applications are in countries where people cook over open fires, zero-emissions solar ovens also possess sustainable synergies for eco-eaters here in the urban jungle. Frank uses her solar oven both at her Catskills cottage and in her south-facing loft on 19th Street. Each summer, she hosts a demonstration upstate, and invites guests to swap solar recipes or just come and see what solar cooking is about.
But she must always plan a rain date because, unlike turning a knob in your kitchen, solar cooking can be a finicky affair, literally changing with the weather. It all comes down to one ingredient: The sun must be high in a cloudless sky. At New York’s latitude, that means around 9am to 3pm, April to October. So by Halloween, Frank packs up her oven until the following spring. And even on a scorching July day, clouds send the temperature plummeting — but if the sunshine’s ample, you can easily boil water, even on a chilly day. (The conditions are even better the nearer you stand to the equator, and are practically unlimited in tropical countries.)
Of course, an indoor oven is easier, but why use fracked gas to cook your Greenmarket corn when the sun is pouring down? Solar cookers are handy for camping or making do in a blackout, but sustainable solar is also the miracle ideal in ecological energy.
It’s this latter point that Lederman emphasizes during bureaucratic meetings at the UN or demonstrations for aid organizations. Her group, for example, provided consulting for the group Jewish World Watch, which has supplied 50,000 solar cookers and counting to Sudanese refugees living in camps in Chad. Now, women there are spared the potentially dangerous trek to look for wood outside the refugee camp, and can leave the cookers unattended while they pursue other tasks. In Chad, where the sun shines 330 days a year, clouds are seldom an issue.
Lederman recently spent an afternoon teaching a female Afghani graduate business student how to use a solar oven. The woman returned home with plans to set up a business around it.
But it’s not just women from developing countries that Lederman and Frank hope to illuminate about this tool; it’s New Yorkers, too.
“My goal is to spread the word,” Lederman says. “I’m a true believer.”
Frank encourages curious Manhattanites to just “get a cooker and start cooking,” whether on the roof, the fire escape or out on the street. “Every time you cook with a solar cooker, you’re reducing carbon emissions, you’re saving fuel and you’re getting to do something truly magical and delicious.”
Find a list of resources — including links to where to buy a solar cooker or how to make your own, plus a national geographic video about solar cooking — here.
Illustration credit: Tae Won Yu