I grew up in a home with a wood-burning cook stove. It’s a grand old Findlay Oval that dominates my parents’ kitchen and guzzles firewood like a starving teenager at mealtime – believe me, I know because I used to haul all that wood! Her name is Raven (my mom likes naming inanimate objects) and she’s a force to be reckoned with – pretty much another member of the family.
With six burners on top, she’s larger than most conventional stoves. She has an oven and a water-warming bin. She exudes so much heat that wet mitts, hats, and boot liners dry out rapidly when left underneath. They’re even toasty warm when you’re ready to go outside again! Wet pots and pans can also hang to dry above her cast-iron surface.
It’s said that firewood warms you four times over: chopping it, stacking it, hauling it, and burning it. When we feed wood to Raven fast enough, the thermostat on the oven door rises rapidly to 350F, perfect conditions for baking. Soon the house fills with the scent of fresh bread, combined with the pot of simmering beans that my mom usually has on top. The only problem is that Raven herself heats up so much that we can hardly approach the stove without getting roasted ourselves. The kitchen slowly empties as we migrate further away to escape the scorching heat. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for pioneers who had to use wood-burning cookstoves in the summertime. Raven only operates during the cold months; we couldn’t handle anything more!
My little brother once had the brilliant idea to stick his belly button directly on a little metal knob that slid one of the grates open. It was the perfect size, at the perfect height. What he didn’t consider was how hot it would be. The poor kid – he was only eight – ended up burning himself right in the belly button! Four years later, he’s still got the scars to prove it.
One problem is that Raven tends toward extremes, which I don’t like. When her cast iron firebox has cooled down overnight, the house is absolutely freezing by morning. I hop out of bed in my bare feet, rush to find slippers, and put on multiple layers of clothing, then I bundle up my kids the second they emerge from their beds. We shiver till my dad fires her up and then we wait… and wait… till slowly, finally, it’s possible to detect a faint bit of heat coming out of the top. Within a few hours, though, we’re down to T-shirts once again.
There were definitely many days when I wished my family were less eccentric – you know, more like those normal families who just hit a button to adjust the temperature and leave the electric heat on low all night long. How lovely and easy that must be! In my own house now, though, that’s exactly what I have. Heat is determined by a button, not the number of logs fed to the fire within a certain time. But last week our power went out for several hours and I started missing Raven more than ever. It made me realize how vulnerable and dependent our lifestyle is on electricity. As I watched the temperature drop on the thermostat, there was nothing I could do except add extra layers of clothing to my kids. Fortunately, it came back on before the house got too cold to handle.
A friend went up to my parents’ place to visit. He was from the city and thoroughly impressed by their rustic lifestyle. He was still waxing poetic about the cookstove when I saw him a couple of weeks ago: “Katherine, that cookstove belonged there! Not just anyone can stick a cookstove in the centre of their house and make it look natural. It’s so clearly a way of life, a central focal point for everyone who enters that home. It felt so warm and welcoming!”
I know what he means. Seeing Raven standing guard over the household whenever I return home for visits gives me a calm, reassuring feeling. I can only hope that someday I’ll be able to have a cookstove myself, though I’ll insist on using low heat at nighttime!