Sunny weather makes Sam Erwin's culinary creativity flow.
The 88-year-old Tracyton man and his wife, Shirley, use the solar-powered oven he invented nearly 40 years ago to cook and bake "anything a regular oven will." It's a diverse list, he said, that includes anything from turkey to cake to stew.
"There's no taste difference at all. And it's very easy to use," said Sam Erwin, who graduated from Bremerton High School in 1942.
Called the Solar Chef, the flower-shaped solar oven uses heat from the sun to cook food. Ten petal-like aluminum sheets reflect sunlight into the oven area while an internal fan helps disperse the heat inside the enclosed structure. The entire oven is placed on a wheeled metal structure so it can be moved and angled to catch the most heat.
On an ideal clear summer day, Erwin said temperatures can reach up to 500 degrees. But with a temperature range more typical of Northwest weather, 40 to 60 degrees, the oven reaches closer to 425 degrees.
Erwin, who was a carpenter by trade, patented the oven in 1978 after showcasing it in Arizona, where he lived for 30 years before moving back to Bremerton.
He didn't set out to invent an oven originally; he was trying to make better use of the hot Arizona weather by building a solar-powered water heater.
His friends at that time didn't understand his new oven, he said. They would tell him to "stay out of the sun."
But he didn't listen. He kept experimenting with sun energy and finessing his oven. His invention landed him in solar shows every weekend and the publicity eventually led to acknowledgments in scientific magazines, which cited the oven as the new energy-efficient way to cook, he said.
Close to 3,000 Solar Chefs have been sold since it was patented, Erwin said. He built each oven himself with temporary hired help when orders became overwhelming, selling the ovens for $325 each.
"Around 30 nations have asked about the oven," he said.
Erwin has no plans to custom-build any more ovens, although he'd like to partner up with a manufacturer to mass-produce them.
The retired couple is enjoying their unconventional method of cooking. On Tuesday, a warmer-than-usual day for February, Shirley baked a lemon cake in the solar oven.
She's hoping for a few more days of sunshine. The 82-year-old needs to finish up her Valentine's Day cookie batch to give to friends and family.
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