Sol Food

The call came on a cloudless weekday afternoon. “Hey, it’s Luther, I’m going to take off early and fire up the parabolic.” Needless to say, I rushed right over.

“Fire” is not exactly the right word in this instance, as the only flame involved in the parabolic’s operation is more than ninety-one million miles from Earth.

“Luther” is Luther Krueger, a crime prevention specialist with the Minneapolis Police Department, and “the parabolic” is the German SK14, which looks like a satellite dish four feet in diameter, a shining concavity of aluminum that reflects the sky above Luther’s South Minneapolis backyard.

Krueger collects and builds solar cookers. When I arrived, he was dropping potatoes into a pot held fast above the parabolic’s focal point, which can reach a thousand degrees.

The SK14 is the glittering gem of Krueger’s collection, but, an hour later, the yard was cluttered with other models. There’s the twenty-dollar Sunspot, made of cardboard and plastic that folds into a Trivial-Pursuit-sized box. The HotPot is basically a casserole-within-a-casserole surrounded by reflective panels. The Tulsi–Hybrid has a heating element for cloudy days and packs up like a red suitcase. One model, by the Sunstove Organization, is made out of salvaged aluminum lithograph plates from old printing presses.

In the two years since he caught the solar bug, Krueger has amassed about ten different models and given away a half dozen homemade ovens—the Hallacy model—built out of plywood, glass, and insulation. Most heat to between 250 and 350 degrees, and, with a little patience and sunny skies, can cook breads, beans, stews, casseroles, meat and fish, cakes, cookies and pies—anything you don’t need to sauté or fry. “Last summer, I put on twenty pounds,” Krueger said.

Krueger’s wife arrived home just in time for dinner—moist, delicious salmon, soft potatoes, and near-caramelized garlic in bubbling-hot olive oil. She’s all right with her husband’s hobby. “He could be rebuilding motorcycles,” she said.

For Mike and Martha Port, solar cooking is more than a novel way to bake their daily bread. The couple cooked their first solar meal—beef roast with potatoes and carrots—in 1988. Almost twenty years later, their locally based Solar Oven Society, a project of the non-profit Persons Helping People, has produced and sold nearly five thousand ovens in more than forty countries. The goal is to provide people in developing countries with a safe way to cook and pasteurize water without the laborious collection of fuel, related deforestation, and harmful fumes produced by open fires in poorly ventilated kitchens.

Martha Port told of women in Kenya who walk seven hours a day, six or seven days a week, to collect firewood.

To fulfill their mission, volunteer sponsors transport the recycled plastic Sport Solar oven to developing countries, sometimes one or two ovens at a time. The society has conducted four larger pilot projects that sent Sport Solars by the hundreds to the United Arab Emirates, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Afghanistan.

Currently, the society is working on a major contract that will deliver thousands of ovens, Port said, but full details have not been announced.

Port related her story of bringing the first prototypes of the current Sport Solar to Haitians on the island of La Gonave. Nine people were trained to teach others how to cook with the sun.

After the weeklong course, Port sailed to another village on the island to find that one woman from the training had walked home with the Sport and “was already telling a crowd of fifty to sixty people about it,” Port said.

“The environment, nutrition, health, economics—it’s win, win, win,” Port said.

Most of the solar society’s ovens must be purchased either with money or “sweat equity,” Port said. “Things that are free aren’t valued as much,” she said.

The Solar Oven Society is just one of the organizations worldwide preaching the gospel of solar cooking. While Krueger supports the cause, he is not sure he’s seen the perfect philosophy yet. He’d like to see a self-sustaining system, in which local people not only use but manufacture and profit from the ovens.

Back in the United States, Krueger lent me his Sport Solar, which I “fired up” in the backyard before hosting friends for the final match of the World Cup in July. The sun-cooked veggie quiche was a clear favorite over the pesto pizza prepared in a conventional oven. So far, though, my solar-cooking career has ended there; the tree cover in our yard limits me to mid-morning brunch. Ironically, it will take a little deforestation for me to truly join the ranks of the solar-cooking fanatics.