Our local Sierra Club invited me to their yearly Roundup to demonstrate my Global Sun Oven this last weekend. Saturday dawned misty and dreary, and as we drove to Roman Nose State Park, the sky pelted us with rain.
Rule #1 of solar cooking: You need sun.
Nevertheless, we perservered and continued to the park for the chilly Roundup. The Sierra Club had organized a wonderful event, with so many interesting mini-classes it was hard to choose. They had lined up hikes, demonstrations, displays, and speeches on a variety of topics - local food, "Leave No Trace" hiking, nature walks, the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, lasagna gardening, star-gazing, and a fire-starting demonstration. Not to mention, of course, solar cooking!
I liked that the Sierra Club "walked the talk" with their gathering. They recycled all the plastic that was used, and dinner and lunch were both made with local food. They had vegetarian options at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I noticed the coffee was fair-trade. Bravo to the Sierra Club! I have attended many an environmental conference or training that was far less sustainable.
3:00 pm rolled around, and the heavens seemed to clear up - just for my demonstration. The sun was shining, and I rushed to set up the Sun Oven. I brought out my flyers, my cookware, my Cooking with Sunshine book, and the ingredients for my demonstration dish. The GSO began to heat up, and I whipped up some cornbread for the demo. Curious people gathered around to examine my gizmo and ask questions. Several people wanted to know if I was selling the ovens. No, I'm just a crazy gal who likes to cook with the sun.
Alas, the sun did not last. The GSO heated up to about 250 F in the 20 minutes the sun was shining, but then, as the clouds returned, it slowly began to lose heat. The cornbread continued to cook, but never finished baking before the heat in the GSO dipped to 150 degrees a few hours later and I gave up on it. But in the meantime, there were several people who gathered around to hear my little speech.
My talk focused on a few key areas: who, what, how, when, where, and why of solar cooking. I started by emphasizing the benefits of solar cooking, which can be different to different people. For example, some might like to have it at an off-grid campsite or cabin, while others want to use it to prepare for the oil armaggedon :), and still others want a reasonably-priced way to use solar energy and reduce their carbon footprint.
In places where people traditionally cook with wood, or three-stone cookfires (i.e. Africa, Haiti, etc), the Sun Oven reduces the particulate pollution from the fires, reduces the time and expense of gathering wood, and is a safer option when little children are around. The main reason I like the Sun Oven is because it keeps my kitchen from heating up in the summer. I hate to set my Geothermal cooling system up to fight the oven or cooktop - the Geo will surely use if the temperature is over 100 F outside.
I'm amazed that this is still such an unrecognized technology. It's fairly cheap compared to solar PV, works well, is portable, and is also good for a backup cooking. It cooks fish, chicken, banana bread, cornbread, beans, chili, lasagna, casseroles, etc. I hope as people like Ed Begley, Jr. and Cody Lunkin continue to promote the sun ovens, they will become more popular in places like OKC, Utah, Nevada, Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado - anywhere where they can be used for about two-thirds of the year (at least from April to November), and where cooling a house can be very expensive. Of course, I hope the sun oven becomes even more popular than that.
I think part of the problem is that people think - oh, I can make my own for free with just cardboard and aluminum foil! Yeah, you can, but it's probably going to take awhile to get up to cooking temperatures, and what you can cook is pretty limited because the temperature won't get as high, and your food will take a lot longer to cook, and the homemade solar cooker probably will fall apart fairly quickly. So people end up disappointed and lose interest. Now, I'm all for "DIY" but I want something that's going to be reliable and cook pretty much like a conventional oven - not something that I just use once a year. I've seen some very cool DIY solar cookers online, but unfortunately the creators of the coolest one I've seen reported that it's so complicated to make that they don't even post the plans on the web. Well, that's useful.
The how of solar cooking is easy to describe, but takes practice to perfect. The key is to have a secure, not-too-windy, sunny place to cook between 10 am and 5 pm (in the summer). Luckily, Oklahoma City gets plenty of sun, and at the 35 N latitude, we have around 200 "prime solar cooking" days. As my husband and I learned the first few times we used the GSO, it is very important to have pots with BLACK LIDS (except when cooking bread or bakery items). It's also nice to have a few bricks to stablize the GSO in the case that your area has the same gale-force winds that we do.
As a bonus, I got to describe the Villager Sun Oven, which is a huge solar cooker designed for large scale cooking (orphanages, bakeries, etc), which can bake several hundred loaves of bread in a day, and which can save the wood from 150 trees in a year. One of these days, it will be mine! Bwa ha ha ha.
Anyway, although the cooking demo was kind of a bust (what do you expect on a day with 20 minutes of sun?), I met a lot of cool people and got to talk about my favorite subjects - peak oil, solar cooking, and Transition Town OKC. And guess what? There was also wine.