Autumn Pumpkin Seed and Local Free-Range Rodent Roast
We have a mouse in our oven. Rather, we had a mouse in our oven. It expired from unnatural causes. Specifically, the mouse seems to have been electrocuted when I activated the broiler a few days ago. Chewed wires caused a short to the broiler which extinguished the mouse, which caused some of the stove insulation to singe, which caused some pumpkin seeds to burn. Of course we knew none of this until the oven was in pieces on our kitchen floor. All that we knew at the time, and what brought the handymen to our rental house, was that the oven produced both a profound stink as well as plumes of smoke. In the yard.
I had procured some good looking Cod fillets earlier in the day and was getting them ready to bake. The kids had cod fish sticks because it is just too much of a leap for them to think of fish looking any other way, but rectangular. They also believe that chicken meat is always shaped like malformed kidneys. The baking process of both went off without a hitch. I turned on the broiler for the last five minutes to brown the top, really perfect our first East Coast fish bake. At that point I could smell something burning, but off in the distance. There wasn’t any smoke in the oven or in the kitchen. Ben walked outside to check the yard and declared that the smoke must be from some neighboring yard. A reasonable assumption in that we could hear trees being cut down and chopped up for most of the afternoon.
We closed the kitchen window thinking that was how the smell was coming into the house. I turned the oven off and got ready for us to sit down and eat, but the kitchen suddenly got a little hazy looking. Ben checked the basement and the attic. My stomach started to knot up expecting and assuming the worst – of course. We were going to burn down our antique rental. We would be the family, those renters, that killed the historic house. Of course the historic house could also kill us with its antique electrical system, but it would be the house the town would mourn. We are too new. I took a turn walking around outside. Just as Ben had said, there was smoke in the yard and you could smell burning trees or leaves around the back of the house. The smell was much worse outside. That was when I walked back into the house and realized the smell was actually now much worse inside. We theorized complicated smoke patterns that must have passed through the window from our neighbor’s controlled burn, created vortexes of stench and then dispersed through the house in intricate pathways. And then we had dinner and forgot about it.
Until bedtime. That’s when the panic really set in for me. The call was definitely coming from inside the house. There was no smoke, but the stench was undeniable. Was there an electrical fire smoldering in the walls? We sniffed out the entire house and pinpointed the smell directly on top of the top panel of the stove. We pulled it out from the wall. No singe marks, no sparks. We looked in the oven, under the oven, and pulled up each burner and found nothing. No ash, no grease stains, no burned food. Nothing to explain the burning smell. Around this time we also discovered that, for the first time in our lives, we had a kitchen exhaust fan that actually vented outside. The smoke and smell in the yard? It was from our kitchen exhaust vent. The stove produced enough of both that it was polluting the back yard. So now we knew it was our stove.
I started Googling, “bad burning smell coming from GE oven” and got lots of hits. I quickly discarded the one that detailed a mouse corpse and its corresponding stench at each oven pre-heating as being the cause of oven stink. Yeah, right. Ben realized I was in a full blown anxiety spiral and asked if he should unplug the stove. “Yes, please” I said, relieved that it had been his suggestion. He also checked the smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors before going to bed. Even though it was now getting cold at night I opened two kitchen windows and turned on a fan before going to bed myself. I awoke, much too early, to one stuffy-nosed kid in bed with me, the sound of the heat being used for the first time (this after a failed attempt by the handymen earlier in the week to line the chimney flue and prevent CO poisoning. Let the anxiety spiral expand!), and a diminished stench with a correspondingly cold spouse.
Ben went off to catch the train to work, the kids went off to school, and I started making phone calls to the handymen; they were scheduled to come at noon anyway to continue working on the chimney. At noon one of the handymen started looking at the oven and we talked about what had happened. The usual suspects were ruled out: grease, food, etc. He smelled the top of the stove and agreed it was coming from inside the body of the oven. He took out his tools and started removing the back panel from the stove and I heard a distinct, “A ha…” He could see that some insulation was disturbed around two wires and that’s when he revealed his mouse theory – by this time he already had found the deceased and had wrapped it in a piece of facial tissue. He whispers, in front of my 4 year old, “I found something” and then proceeds to gently open the tissue for the big reveal.
Seeing the dead mouse wasn’t nearly as upsetting as seeing its nest once he removed the top of the oven. Piles of disturbed and singed insulation and hundreds and hundreds of seeds. The insulation had been pulled apart and seeds stuffed in layers reminiscent of phyllo dough – if mice worked as bakers with really bad hygiene. At this point I think I’m getting a new oven. Of course I’m getting a new oven. That thing needs to be driven to the nearest landfill and thrown out and then we’re heading to Sears! But then I watch him, and his assistant, put on rubber gloves, get a trash bag, and start meticulously de-seeding the oven’s interior. And then I realize they are just going to clean it out and I’m going to cook on it again. They are now wearing protective face masks and I’m wondering if I just gave my kids hantavirus-laced fish sticks.
Ninety minutes later they have picked out the seeds and the disturbed insulation and are using a vacuum to tidy up. New fiberglass goes in, the wiring is fixed, and the machine is put back together with nary a screw left over. I politely ask questions about any negative health effects from continuing to heat up a recently mouse infested oven and am told I’ll be fine. “I work around mice all the time and I’ve never gotten sick. And I have respiratory problems too.” said the head handyman. I see the error in his logic, but say nothing. “The smell should burn off the more you use it.”
The kids love the idea that a mouse was in the stove. They proudly went to school today and announced it to anyone that would listen. I can imagine the polite smiles from the teachers and other parents. I can then imagine the other parents making a mental note to never let their child have a playdate at our house. I’ve used the stove a few times now and the smell isn’t so bad, but it’s going to take a while to get rid of the smell completely. In the meantime I fantasize about my Kenmore Elite Double Convection Oven that we left behind in the house we just sold. I imagine how I would feel after spending all that money only to have it turned into a stainless steel Habitrail.
And then I’m glad that we’re renting.