Heating Up

         Late last fall I was standing on the corner of 17th St. and Sixth Ave in South Slope when a large truck turned the corner in front of me. That area of Brooklyn is residential and quiet, with big shade trees, two or three-story homes, and small apartment buildings. So it seemed to me unusual to see a big truck there. What was more unusual was that it was a truck full of kindling. Or at least that’s what was advertised on the side–“Quality Kindling for cook stoves.”

I forgot to watch for the light to change–I just stood there staring at that truck trundling down the street.  What on earth was a truck full of kindling doing in New York City? I couldn’t quite visualize a New York apartment dweller firing up a cast iron cook stove–even on a frosty winter morning. My stove in the farmhouse kitchen would be as big as an entire kitchen here!  A small cast iron heating stove set inside an old fashioned fireplace? Maybe, but still a stretch. Besides kindling, a heating stove would need larger pieces to keep the fire going for any length of time. Where would they stack that wood? On the fire escape? Under the bed? It was just too much to contemplate.

But I really did see that truckload of kindling. Perhaps the driver was delivering it to a restaurant that serves wood fired pizzas. Still–a whole semi-truck of kindling? And as far as I know, there aren’t any wood fired pizza restaurants in the area where I saw that truck. Maybe it was lost.

Now, if this was southwest Wisconsin–yes. Out in the country and even in the villages the fragrant scent of wood smoke is a regular feature of fall and winter mornings and evenings. (Think sitting around a campfire beside a lake or in the woods and you’ll know just about what it smells like.). Some farmers spend the late fall months before the snow gets too deep cutting wood from their woodlots for burning the next winter.  But other people buy their wood. A semi-truck full of kindling would be unusual, but still believable.

We have three wood-burning stoves in our farmhouse. The thirty-year old Vigilant–an airtight cast-iron heating stove–used to be our main heating source until we asked Barry, our stone-mason friend, to build us his own take on a Russian Furnace. Barry’s stove is a big brick structure that’s built into the middle of the house. Once it heats up it stays hot for days, gently warming the house, but if you touch it you won’t get burned.

And then we have our Queen’s Best cook stove, cast in 1896, three years before the house was built. It’s edged with chrome that’s still bright in some places and even has a reservoir for hot water on the side opposite the firebox. Jack fires it up every fall and winter morning to make breakfast, and the mingled smell of coffee and wood smoke as you come down the stairs is like a little bit of heaven right there in southwest Wisconsin. It’s almost impossible to burn anything on that stove–food cooks evenly as you slide your pan from a hot place to a slightly cooler place on the enormous cooktop. For years we cooked our Thanksgiving turkey in the oven as well as our weekly loaves of whole wheat bread. My mom once baked an angel food cake in it and pronounced the best she’d ever made. (And she’s made a lot of angel food cakes!)

Our Brooklyn apartment has old-fashioned hot water radiators. Like Barry’s furnace, they warm the house without getting so hot they’d burn you if you touched them. I can hang a wet towel over my radiator to dry. Hot water heat is better for our skin–and the furniture.  And when the radiators start to heat up they make the most amazing clanking noises. I really think we have a couple of hardworking elves down under the floor somewhere banging on the pipes with metal hammers. You might think it’s annoying, but it’s not. It announces the coming of the heat. Once it’s on and the clanking stops, the radiators start a comforting hissing sound like a pressure cooker on the stove during tomato canning season.

But I do miss heating and cooking with wood. On a recent crisp fall day when the yellow and brown leaves were piling up on the sidewalk and the sky was bright blue, I smelled the subtle but definite scent of wood smoke in the air. Maybe a wood-burning stove in Brooklyn isn’t an impossibility after all. Maybe that kindling truck makes home deliveries.

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