How cooking outdoors lost its charm

Spring progressed toward summer, our first year as caretakers of a ranch in Whitney Valley, Ore., and the days heated up. We welcomed the fire in our wood-fired cookstove during the cold early mornings. But when we fed it wood too long after sunup, and when we cooked dinner toward the end of a hot day, the stove heated the house too hot. We had no other way to cook.

Our yard didn't resemble any urban or suburban yard. Native grasses and weeds bordered a wide dirt driveway. Not bound by any neighborhood covenant or even neighborhood opinion, since we were on a ranch and not in a neighborhood, we could do anything we wanted in the yard.

I said, "We can move most of the cooking and most of the heat from cooking outdoors." I thought my wife, Laura, cast a skeptical eye in my direction, but she didn't say anything. She was usually willing to wait and see how whatever idea I had would work out. I went ahead with my plans.

I sorted through materials in the barn and found a flat piece of steel. I built a ring of rocks in the front yard. I spanned the rocks with the piece of steel. I built a fire under the steel, and we had a surface on which to cook and heat water.

To me, the cooking fire in the front yard felt like the good old days when I worked in the forests, camped out, and cooked over a campfire. I enjoyed building the fireplace, and I enjoyed using it. "Here's how you do it," I said. I built the fire, heated the water, and did most of the cooking for a few days to show Laura how to do it. But irrigating meadows, repairing fences, and building a garden behind the house used more and more of my time, and I did less and less cooking.

Laura heated water and cooked over the fire in the front yard. She carried heavy containers of cold water out from the kitchen and hot water back into the kitchen. Then she would discover something else needed to be brought out, and then something more. Our daughters, Juniper and Amanda, helped willingly, but they were still quite young. Much of what Laura needed was too high for them to reach or too heavy for them to carry.

Laura said, "I can do it. I've heated water outside now, and I've cooked outside. I gave up electricity when we moved here. I gave up indoor plumbing, except for the pump and the kitchen sink, and that's OK, because what we gain by living out here is worth giving up conveniences for. But cooking outdoors is too much. In the mornings, I'm too cold on the side away from the fire. Wind blows smoke in my face. Wind blows dirt in my face. It blows ashes and dirt into our food. On hot afternoons, sunshine close to the fire is hotter than it gets indoors. All work has to be done almost at ground level.

"I'm taking the cooking back inside," Laura concluded, "to the kitchen stove, and we can live with the heat. It cools off fast in the evenings. We can eat late and open the windows."

I opened my mouth to further extol the joys and advantages of cooking outdoors, but I shut it again before I said anything. Laura helped build a good home, and she surrounded all of us with love. She participated willingly in seeking workable ways to live in a situation few in this part of the world encounter. The good memories that cooking outdoors stimulated for me did not help her with the extra work of cooking outdoors.

We built a fire in the cookstove, mornings and evenings, and opened all the windows. We sometimes heated up too hot and cooled down too far.

Several years later, we found a propane-fueled two-burner hot plate and a five-gallon propane bottle when we had enough disposable income to buy it. Using propane burners to do some of our cooking and water heating started us late and slowly toward acquiring some of the conveniences so common in the modern culture around us.

Meanwhile, we went right on being too hot, or too cold, or - often - just right. We experimented to see what would work, loved all the processes of learning, and built rich memories out of the things that worked and our brief experiences with those that didn't.

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