This probably goes without saying, but when we first made the decision to move onto a bit of wild land, our plan had some major holes in it. I wasn’t worried, exactly. I’m not a planner anyway. I said, “There are two things I don’t want to talk about. Water, and power.” And then I proceeded not to talk about those things.
You’re with me, right? We have a great plan for shelter. We have a reasonable, albeit untested plan for growing and raising food. But power? And water? That’s graduate level homesteading, and I’m a freshman.
But, no. It isn’t more advanced, really; it’s interactive. At water and power we have to make decisions about how we interact with the grid, which is the society at large, which is everybody else. I’ve said before that we aren’t isolationists. But we don’t want to consume energy at the rate typical for an American family. We want to do things differently. And that means taking a risk, to let go of the standard infrastructure and replace it with something else.
This is a wood fired cookstove.
I didn’t even know what it was until it was given to us as an early Christmas present by our best friends in the world right now, and I really mean our Best Friends In The World Right Now – they let us live with them. When it was first suggested, I liked the idea for the romance, and the antique-y sort of beauty, but I didn’t love it for actually using the thing. Nick and I had talked about a regular stovetop that would run on propane.
But here’s a lesson I keep learning on this journey. Throwing over the most current or most common kind of technology is not equivalent with a return to the primitive. Human beings have been creative for a very long time, and we have come up with all sorts of cool stuff.
On the first trial, we thought we would make pancakes. It was evening, and the gentlemen had just muscled this giant heavy thing (from Craigslist, of course) around the house onto the patio, taking little baby steps and saying, “Uhn, Uhn, Uhn,” like a football drill. It was just beginning to snow the first snow of the year.
No cords. No tapping into anybody’s grid. A little bit of kindling, a little bit of wood, a little spark. We had to light the fire twice, because we had filled the little firebox too full of our Craigslist wood.
Lesson from our grandparents number one: a little bit of fire goes a long way.
Of course we thought if we were making pancakes, we might as well make coffee, too, so we put a kettle on the stove, and waited. We had to wait a long time. A good cooking fire isn’t about size. It’s about timing. Like a charcoal grill, you have to let the fire get some coals to it before it will effectively heat the cooktop and the oven. You have to wait.
Lesson from our grandparents number two: good things come to those who wait.
So, we thought…since we were making pancakes and coffee, we might as well make bacon, too. The water boiled. Bacon started to sizzle. There’s an oven, too, under the cooktop, but we thought the oven wasn’t working, because everything else was hot and the oven wasn’t. We put the bacon in the oven to keep it warm, which was simply wrong. Ten minutes later, the oven heated up just fine, and burned the bacon.
Lesson from our grandparents number three: metal heats up fast; air heats up slow.
“Wait, do I have to, like, know about science and stuff to use this thing?”
If you’re wondering how you control the temperature of your cooking food without the little dials, this is how. The cooktop has a hot side and a cool side. You watch your food, and if it’s too hot you move it away from the fire. If it’s too cool, you move it towards the fire. You receive information from the environment and then you have to respond, to get the results you want. It’s like playing a video game, except REAL.
Lesson from our grandparents number four: to make sure your food turns out just the way you want it, learn how to make your food turn out just the way you want it.
So, we thought…since we were making pancakes and coffee and bacon, we might as well make omelets, too. And — since the oven works after all — an apple crisp. Nick’s brother worked like a prep cook in the kitchen, shuttling things out to the stove. His oldest son, our nephew, stood by the stove with a plate, carrying cooked food back inside before it took on too much snow. I stood at the window holding the littlest, who was almost asleep, watching my reflection on the glass, and…snow falling on bacon.
You know I love this sort of thing. I can’t tell you that it is a better way to go than propane, or even that we won’t eventually tap into the electric grid, when we have a wall to put a light switch in. But I’m glad to have to have this glimpse into what life was like a short, long time ago, when a family ate good food without electric burners. And to claim this freedom: to replace infrastructure with intelligence.