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October 15, 2008

The AGA con

Filed under: appliances — Mr. Henry @ 8:53 am

Gong.Li.jpgMr. Henry likes to get the best. Failing to get the best, he prefers to do without. Back in the 1970’s when fine wine was scarce and expensive, for example, he opted for a libation more dependably available and cheaper, namely, whiskey – Maker’s Mark sour mash bourbon, to be precise. (Oh, the corn. He shudders to remember it now.)

Over the weekend in Florida he saw his first AGA cooker. It was beautiful, more beautiful than the Jaguar XK-E, more beautiful than Gong Li.  He rushed up to its enameled cast iron surface and promptly burned his fingers.
The AGA cooker, you see, always remains hot. You fire it up and leave it on…..forever. It has no knobs or switches. Designed in 1920 by a blind Swedish Nobel-prize winning physicist intent on alleviating household drudgery for his long-suffering wife (you know the type), the AGA is ideal for a farmhouse in Upper Scandihoovia where the heat stays on all summer but awkward, and hugely wasteful, for a southern clime like Florida.

Manufactured in England, today the AGA has become the signature appliance of the British upper-crust über foodie. Each oven remains perpetually at its given temperature – 475˚, 350˚, and 175˚ respectively – with two griddles, one at a constant 800˚, the other at a constant 400˚. To effectively make use of this antique system a cook must learn how to shuffle pots from hot to warm.

If you want to make breakfast muffins, the thing is wonderful. You don’t have to wait for your oven to reach temperature. Bread bakes to perfection. Toast on the griddle is especially delicious.
The price, however, is gargantuan. The elegant four-oven model costs more than $15,000.

Price notwithstanding, in your covetous heart of hearts don’t you want the best oven money can buy? No. It’s a con. Like designer luggage, the AGA is an indulgence best left unfulfilled.

Four years ago when Mrs. Henry decided to renovate their kitchen she quickly concluded that a Wolf or Viking professional range was simply too big for household needs. Although the Thermidor had its attractions, the Dacor 30” gas range in stainless steel finish won the day. Its cast iron range top is sturdy, handsome, and easy to clean. The convection oven (used principally to brown baked goods) works well to eliminate hot spots. Its most important feature, however, one used almost daily, is the ceramic radiant heat broiler. Fish is cooked perfectly in 10-12 minutes. Asparagus browns in half that time.

A two-oven kitchen, convenient if you routinely serve state dinners at the White House, is for most people a waste of money and space. One oven, one refrigerator, and one LARGE kitchen sink are all any family kitchen needs.

In truth the choice of oven is not all that critical. The cook’s capabilities are more important. If you use an oven thermometer, you may ignore the readings on your oven’s own thermometer, readings which are often misleading because temperature varies from front to back and from side to side within the oven. Moreover, if you cook in an enameled cast iron dutch oven pot, you can achieve the highest quality braised meat dishes in a perfectly ghastly old oven like the one that graced the Henry’s apartment when they bought it, an avocado green contraption they swore would be out on the street in minutes but which gave yeoman service for 20 years.


  1. Dear Mr. Henry:
    I love your style of writing, the photos, and your sense of humor! Thank you for blogging – it cheers me up to read the posts. And I can still visualize some of the places you write about on the Upper West Side.

    Comment by Kathy Isacks — October 16, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

  2. Thank you, too, dear Kathy. Mr. Henry decries false humility. When praise is foisted upon him, he accepts in a like spirit of generosity.

    Comment by Mr. Henry — October 17, 2008 @ 11:10 am

  3. Wonderful post. I was thinking the same thing about Florida when I read what you wrote! I live in Florida and I was thinking on top of the cost to have that and run it, I’d be paying a bundle on air conditioning to keep the rest of the house cool!

    Comment by Jessica — October 19, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

  4. I can’t use it in Italy, either, but I loved it in my friend’s converted 12th century barn in England. Near the Aga was the only warm and dry spot in the house. She has a cooktop and electric oven in case it ever gets hot. It has twice so far.
    There are equally lovely French ones… I fell for one with a brass oven!

    Comment by Judith in Umbria — October 20, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  5. As an AGA owner, i have to say that I adore mine. It is one of those rare consumer products that actually made my life better. Now, an AGA isn’t for everyone. We live in Connecticut, so climate isn’t such an issue. It does warm up the kitchen, but only a couple degrees. Before we got one, that was the thing I was most worried about, and it turned out to be a non-issue. And it’s only worth it if you cook a lot – which we do. We cook dinner 7 nights a week, big breakfasts on the weekends, and usually a pot of soup for lunches. The AGA makes everything so much easier – no worrying if the oven is up to temp or where the hotspots in your oven are, and no waiting, ever. if you are making a large meal and there are things that need to cook at different temps (dinner, desert, and rolls, say) you don’t even have to think about it. And because the heat is so moist, your food doesn’t dry out. It is much, much harder to burn something in an AGA – and nothing ever sticks to the bottom of pans, because the heat isn’t directional. It really simplifies your kitchen, too. You don’t need a toaster, you don’t need a microwave, you don’t need a convection oven. And you only barely need a dryer and iron, too. We dry about 75% of our laundry on the AGA – you can buy special drying racks for your clothes, but we just put everything on the front rail or the hobs. It’s great especially for sheets, because they dry completely flat and don’t need to be ironed.
    As for the price? Well, I’ve already said the AGA isn’t for everyone. It is definitely an indulgence. You just have to decide if food and cooking is something that is that important to you – to my husband and me, cooking is a central part of our lives. A good percentage of our time together is spent either in the kitchen or at the table. It is important to us that our cooker is beautiful and works well and pleasant to deal with. Isn’t that why we buy iPods and iPhones and things like that? Things you spend a lot of time dealing with should be beautiful and well made – I’ll spend money for that.

    Comment by Laura — October 21, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

  6. Given the economic situation, and Mr. Henry’s situation within that situation, and the consequent cancellation earlier today of the annual Henry ski vacation, perhaps Laura would permit a small and very well-mannered family (with dog) to stay for a short while at her Connecticut, AGA-endowed farmhouse over the Christmas holidays.

    Having never actually used an AGA, you see, Mr. Henry might be persuaded to change his opinion. Your description is tantalizing. Those fresh muffins for breakfast, the ones you don’t even have to think about, well, they sound fine, just fine.

    Comment by Mr. Henry — October 21, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

  7. Oh, Laura, please extend the invitation to the Henries! I love his writing too much to tolerate the idea of a cancelled ski vacation. I think we can all vouch for the family’s well-manneredness.

    Comment by Sarah — October 21, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

  8. Mr. Henry and family are of course welcome over the Christmas holidays at our Connecticut condo(sadly not a farmhouse). Always happy to convert someone else to the way of the AGA. 🙂

    P.S. we are even convenient to Metro North!

    Comment by Laura — October 21, 2008 @ 7:48 pm

  9. Nothing says English country house with lots of dogs and horses like an AGA, just like nothing says French chateau like La Cornue.
    But nothing says quality baking at a reasonable price like the Dacor.

    Comment by belle — October 21, 2008 @ 9:52 pm

  10. Mr. Henry and family are also welcome to bunk with me, although they will have to help me move the piles of books off the sofabed if they wish to sleep actually indoors.

    I think AGAs were invented for grand houses with servants and dinner parties. And yes, they were certainly invented before the days of green consciousness.

    Comment by raincoaster — October 22, 2008 @ 2:51 am

  11. I should clarify that I live in Vancouver and you can take the city bus to two different ski mountains, or just toddle up to Whistler for the day.

    Comment by raincoaster — October 22, 2008 @ 2:52 am

  12. Mrs. Uncle Fester and I bought a house (Hudson Valley of NY) with an AGA. She swears by it. I did not know they were so expensive.

    Here are some extra-cool AGA features:

    1. It’s outstanding for rewarming pizza.
    2. If you forget that you put the pizza in there and it burns, or you have something extra-smelly in the oven, it does not stink up the house as the ovens vent outside.

    It’s hard to keep the top clean, though.

    Comment by Uncle Fester — October 22, 2008 @ 10:21 am

  13. I actually think $15000 is less than you’d expect to pay for something this good, no? What did you pay for your last car? How much do you pay to keep it up? And you don’t have to insure your Aga in case it hurts someone.

    I do not live near any skiing at all, but I do live on a farm and have 3 stoves, none Agas, as well as a gas cooker. Lots of free nuts, fruits, mushrooms and truffles, but entertainment tends to be making fun of each other.

    Comment by Judith in Umbria — October 23, 2008 @ 6:03 am

  14. Until Mrs. Henry got wind of it, Mr. Henry was poised to accept all these delightful invitations. However, she cast aspersions on his scruples, and even for hot biscuits in the morning Mr. Henry cannot relinquish his good name.

    The AGA probably does transform a cold farmhouse into the most splendidly cozy homestead imaginable. Reheated pizza, however, doesn’t sound like enough of an inducement. Judith is right about the purchase price. Compared to an automobile it’s not too awful, but what about the continuing cost of all that gas?

    For the holidays Mr. Henry suggests that raincoaster, Laura, Sarah, the Uncle Festers, Kathy, belle, and Jessica all meet at Judith’s in Umbria. With three ovens the feasting would be tremendous.

    Comment by Mr. Henry — October 23, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

  15. Sounds fabulous. I’ll see if I can get my hands on some of that walrus sushi we were talking about before.

    Comment by raincoaster — October 27, 2008 @ 2:40 am

  16. The area has some of the best wines in the world.

    Comment by Radomir — March 15, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

  17. Well, no one ever did call about this visit. I did receive an email from someone from another blog asking to stay with me for money. Can’t do that, but will trade garden muscle for meals.

    Comment by Judith in Umbria — March 20, 2010 @ 3:42 am

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