Last month, I learned about the ancient Roman festival of Fornacalia. This was a festival held in the date range of February 5-17, when people honored ovens (fornaces) and the goddess of ovens, Fornax. Fornax had some important responsibilities: she kept ovens from starting fires, kept bread from burning, and in general, made sure that baking came out right.
Clearly, this is a goddess after my own heart. On the baking-cooking spectrum, I prefer baking, although I end up cooking more frequently. There’s just something wonderfully magical about baking. Put together a selection of ingredients. Get them into a pan or Dutch oven or casserole dish. Put that vessel into the oven, close the oven door, and the alchemy happens. You don’t just have hot, sweet liquid batter; you have a light and fluffy cake. Your sticky, damp, inedible bread dough has metamorphosed into a golden brown loaf of scrumptiousness. Form has changed; texture has changed. Cooking—at least the mostly vegetarian, rice-and-beans style cooking I do most often—doesn’t usually transform the ingredients so drastically. Oh, sure, the onions get translucent and the rice grains and beans swell up, but mostly, a bunch of raw mixed ingredients doesn’t look all that different than a bunch of cooked mixed ingredients. Delicious, yes; magical, not quite as much.
Of course, the magic here is science. I have several books that explain at great and fascinating length how leaveners work, how gluten is formed, and what low, prolonged heat does to the collagen in meat. I love reading those sorts of cookbooks. On top of which, in researching Fornax, I learned that she’s a bit more artificial than many deities, probably invented after the fact as an origin for the Fornacalia. I’m guessing that there isn’t any mythology about her, no tales of lovers taken or spurned, no stories of her having spared Rome from destruction by preventing an oven fire from getting out of control. I can remember all that, though, and still consider baking to be magical and think that maybe there are worse perspectives I could have than thinking of my oven as a shrine to a minor, yet important goddess.
Non-bakers have reason to honor Fornax as well. Surely fornaces reminded you of the English word “furnaces.” Furnaces: very important to those of us in the Upper Midwest, especially at the time of the Fornacalia.