Friday, March 9, 2012

The New Homesteading: Winter = Wood

The farthest-flung woodpile on the homestead.
When I told people I was moving to Maine for a year, starting Jan. 1, the first reaction tended to be about the perceived folly of picking that particular time of year to make that particular move. I wasn't worried. I had spent 17 years in Boston, after all, so I know the drill of the New England winter.

Of course, two months in, I know there was another reason I needn't worry about the winter here. We've hardly had one. It has snowed just a handful of times, and a couple of those were so light as to barely count. Take the gorgeous fluff that sprinkled down a few weeks ago; I barely had time to take a photo of it because by the time the sun was up for more than a couple of hours, the flakes had evaporated from the trees, the ground, anywhere they had touched. Ephemera. More recently, on March 1, the morning I needed to get to Dover for a bus to Logan Airport in Boston for a flight to Charleston, we got walloped, but not before I made it out, just barely. I figured that by the time I got back, the warmer weather -- and some rain -- would erase all memory of the snow, but 14 inches don't go away all that easily.

The other thing I now know is this: There's a world of difference between the winters I spent living in apartments and condos in the South End and Jamaica Plain and the one I'm spending here on the homestead. 

Here, winter has been mostly occupied by one thing: wood. It's slowed down lately, but for awhile there when I wasn't sawing, I was stacking, and when I wasn't stacking I was hauling. And I'm not particularly good at any of it, although I'm getting better. I spent several hours one afternoon helping my brother-in-law, Peter, clear the path around one side of the 5-acre property of extra limbs; he used the chain saw and I armed myself with a huge set of heavy clippers, big enough to snap off anything 3 inches in diameter or smaller, and a bucksaw. Afterward, my task was to gather any pieces that were big enough to burn and stack them on a wooden toboggan, the perfect thing, really, for sliding loads on ice and snow without too much effort.

I tried doing it without tying any of them down, but guess how that went? Logs roll, of course. Then I had the bright idea to tie them to the sled. I imagined it was a giant roast that I was tying up before putting it in the oven, and I looped the rope around, crossed it, looped again, repeated a few times, and tied it off. So proud of myself -- until I tried to drag the toboggan and realized what many of you savvier folks than I have realized already, that the ropes underneath the sled would compromise its ability to be dragged. A sled can't slide unless it's smooth, or it can't slide easily. I was determined to make it work, so I trudged along, now dragging what felt like 200 pounds instead of 50, until I realized the second problem, which many of you savvier folks have also realized already, which is that the ropes would of course slide off in the dragging.

Sigh. This is what it's like to learn something new, to learn by doing, and while I've never been good at admitting what I'm not good at (except for just now, in this sentence, right?), this was the whole point in moving here. I want to try to experience, as much as possible, what it takes to live the way Peter and my sister, Rebekah, do. In the process, I'm using a different part of my brain -- my body, too -- and it's invigorating.

The cookstove.
Winter equals wood on the homestead for one simple reason: The house is heated that way, through two stoves in the kitchen. One is a stunning, forest-green Stanley cookstove, and the other a soapstone heating stove. On particularly cold days and nights, both are fired up and blazing. When it's less so, we rely on just the cookstove, for both heating and cooking -- well, most of the cooking, anyway.

Pete, with his eye always on the electrical usage, figures that in winter, when the cook stove is going, it makes little sense to use the fancy new GE Profile electric induction stove. This has been the source of some tension, since Rebekah has wanted to fall in love with the induction stove after buying it a couple months ago as a replacement for her beloved gas-fired, vintage O'Keeffe & Merritt, which they sold to make room for something that could be powered by the solar panels. Besides being one of the best home cooks I know, Rebekah is an accomplished bread baker, and there is a beautiful wood-fired bread oven outside that we are both itching to get going. Until then, baking in the Stanley can be somewhat of a dicey -- or, I should say, variable -- proposition. Talk about hot spots. The thing cranks out some heat, and I've learned to regulate it (I even managed to hold it at 350 degrees for several hours one evening), but it's nothing compared to the convection heat of the GE or the intense dry heat from the bread oven, at least inside. On top, depending on how hot the fire is, of course, the flat iron burners can range from barely producing a simmer to something that seems to approach nuclear. And the whole thing throbs with heat; I have the burns to prove it, from the times when I have remembered to keep it stoked with wood whenever Pete is otherwise occupied.

You can cook anything in it that you cook in a conventional stove, provided you know what you're doing, but I have to say that those hot spots can make it difficult for sensitive baked goods. And the oven is too small to fit a full-sized cookie sheet or half-sheet pan. When the heat is on the low side, though, it's particularly good -- as is the outside bread oven -- for one of Peter's favorite winter dishes, New England baked beans. I like their combination of sweet, salty and smoky, too, but Rebekah and I aren't quite as enamored of them as Peter, who would just as soon eat them for every meal throughout the winter -- and probably much of the spring, summer and fall, too. When I casually tossed off the idea just today that some of us believe that there are indeed good bean recipes that don't call for sweetener of any kind, Pete had one quick response: "Flatlander."

Before you can bake the beans, the oven needs firing up, and for that you need wood. There is a process to the wood, a rhythm, as there is with everything here. The homestead goes through about 4 cords a year, and it's stacked in multiple places, all of them covered. Outside, one shed is on the far side of the new patch, along the edge of the woods, and the other is closer to the house, on just the other side of the driveway from the car shed, sharing space with the tractor.  Inside, in the kitchen, a large wooden box against one wall holds about two wheelbarrows full of shorter pieces that fit into the cookstove and longer pieces that fit into the heating stove, all of it hardwood: mostly red oak and red maple but a little birch and cherry, too. Some softwood (pine and hemlock) gets burned in the brick oven outside or in the stove Peter recently built to boil down maple sap (a blog post for another day). Anyway, the idea is to keep another two wheelbarrows full of wood waiting in the car shed, so that when the inside box gets low, the path to more wood is relatively short -- and dry. Those wheelbarrows are refilled with wood from the woodsheds. Stack, haul, repeat.

The property line.
Peter cuts some of the wood down himself, and buys some occasionally, three years in advance so it has time to dry. And winter is not just a good time to burn wood, it's also a good time to cut wood, because, as Peter taught me, when it's cold the sap goes down to a tree's roots, meaning the wood will dry more quickly. Frozen wood is also easier to split. So when we clear wood around the property-line path, for easier walking, or when we clear the path around maple trees, for easier tapping to make syrup, or when we clear out a stand of evergreens from the south side of the house to allow more sunlight (and therefore natural heat), the bigger pieces get cut for burning. 

Peter could probably cut all the wood with the chainsaw, but in an effort to use less gas and also give him -- and now me -- some exercise, I'm assigned to cut the smaller pieces with the bucksaw. And that will definitely get the heart pumping -- perhaps not as much as splitting wood, which I haven't exactly mastered (nor tried that hard to, admittedly), but still. When Pete gave me a tutorial on using the saw, the instructions sounded an awful lot like the chef's-knife lecture on Day 1 of culinary school. Don't push the saw through the wood. Let the weight of the saw do the work. Relax the shoulder. With my workout regimen in mind, I alternated arms, moving around to the different side of the sawhorse each time the wood fell. I would cut about an hour at a time, working my way through this pile and that for days on end. I thought I was getting pretty good at it until some particularly hearty friends visited from West Texas. Don and Norma are in their 60s; he's a businessman-turned-landscape worker, and she's a schoolteacher who grew up on a farm. Workhorses, both. I think they sawed through in a single day what it took me a week to do. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that they didn't stop after an hour, like I did -- which maybe had something to do with the fact that they were on vacation, while I had hours of research, writing and cooking to do every day.

Back to the wood and the toboggan. I ended up leaving the sled in the woods and taking a break for lunch. I figured I'd ask Peter for advice, and when I told him what I was trying to do, he smiled. "First, you're probably trying to carry too much at once," he said. True enough, I'm sure. "Second, you don't need to tie anything all around the sled -- that's what the rims are for." Oh, right. The rims: On each side of the sled, they allow someone to attach straps or rope and stretch it across the top, holding on the cargo while allowing the sled to keep its slide-ability. Again, you savvy readers have probably figured out the third suggestion Peter made. Bungees. Why didn't I think of that? Well, because I've never done this before. But now I can say I have, and the next time we need to haul wood out of the woods on a sled, I'll know just how to do it. 

That day will probably not come until next winter, from the looks of things. Last night, we passed a seasonal milestone. It was so warm yesterday -- in the 60s -- and wasn't set to freeze last night, so we let the fire in the cookstove burn out, leaving just the residual warmth in the house to keep us through the night before Pete fired it up again in the early morning. I don't know how Pete and Rebekah fared on the ground floor, but up on the third, things were plenty cozy without it.

Pete's Baked Beans.
Pete's Baked Beans

The homestead's copy of "Woodstove Cookery: At Home on the Range" by Jane Cooper (1977, Garden Way Associates) isn't just dog-eared; it's cleaved in two, broken apart at page 144 because of Pete's regular use of the baked beans recipe. Cooper credits this to Leila MacGregor of Tunbridge, Vt., who in turn calls it "an old Vermont family recipe." Besides preferring to use home-grown beans (Jacob's Cattle are particularly good for this treatment), Pete's only deviation is in the sweetener: He uses slightly less molasses than the original recipe calls for, and uses maple syrup (of course) instead of sugar.

2 cups dried Jacob's Cattle or other plump heirloom beans, soaked overnight
Small piece of salt pork
1 small onion, sliced
1/4 cup molasses
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Dash of pepper

Adjust the fire and dampers on your cookstove to hold a temperature of about 300 degrees in the oven. (Or preheat a conventional oven.)

Drain the beans. Transfer them to a Dutch oven or large soup pot, cover with water, and boil over medium heat on the cooktop until they are tender, an hour or more (depending on the age of the beans). Pour the cooked beans and their liquid into a bean pot, preferably stoneware, add the salt pork, onion, molasses, maple syrup, salt, dry mustard, ground ginger and pepper, and stir to combine.

Bake for eight hours, adding water as needed to keep the beans moist.


This post is part of Let’s Lunch – a virtual lunchdate with food bloggers around the globe. Want to join us in the kitchen? Comment on this post or tweet using the hashtag #LetsLunch. 

Here are more posts on this month's Green theme from the Let's Lunch crew. Check back later for more links:

  1. Zest Bakery:  Pandan Tapioca Pudding With Coconut Cream
  2. Hapa Mama: How to Brew a Better Pot of Tea
  3. A Cook and Her Book: Green Bean and Vidalia Spring Onion Soup
  4. ShowFood Chef: Matcha Green Tea Cupcakes
  5. Burnt-Out Baker: Green Chorizo
  6. Monday Morning Cooking Club: Natanya’s Guacamole
  7. Cowgirl Chef: Notos Pesto 
  8. Geofooding: Asparagus with Poached Egg


  1. Hi Joe! Even though you totally cheated on the theme (*snicker*) I always enjoy your writing and do admit the new england baked beans sound lovely. Thanks for sharing this with the group!

  2. This story just bubbles over with a sense of place, from the Christmas card snow to the hearty baked beans, with the wood-chopping primer and cozy cabin in between. A delightful post. Gonna stand outside in the 63 degree Georgia sun now, to thaw out.

  3. Joe, sounds idyllic. And hard work. Your comment re: your sister's vintage O'Keefe & Merritt makes me wistful for my own, which I passed on to a wonderful new owner to make a way something sleek and stainless steel.

  4. Nice information! Your Sound is really good about "The New Homesteading: Winter = Wood". I am intimidated by the excellence of information. There are a lot of high-quality funds here. I am sure I will visit this site again soon. I know something about this same information, to know you can click here.