The last few fall seasons have been tainted by wildfires in California. As early as August this year, rare lightning strikes set the landscape ablaze, leaving destruction and dimmed sunlight from the choking, smoky air.
Living in it has made me want to remember more pleasant home fires. For decades, my parents heated their house with a wood stove. The first chill of autumn spurred the inaugural lighting of that stove’s “eternal flame,” as my mother called it, and it provided good heat, as well as the ever-present woodsy smoke from Kansas-cut cedar, oak, hackberry and elm logs.
There’s no longer a curl of smoke from their chimney since my mother’s passing last year, but the scent remains as a signature in the house, and if I catch a whiff of wood smoke anywhere now, I feel an instant familial recognition. I picture my parents carrying out buckets of ash and bringing in logs with a thump in the middle of the night. I see my mom’s cast-iron kettle, water a-boil in it on the stove’s red-hot surface, acting as a homemade humidifier. I picture my dad, always cold as he got older, sitting close and staring into the partially open stove door, entranced by the orange-red coals.
My parents were keen and skilled fire starters (and keepers). They knew which wood was still too “green” or just aged enough to properly catch and burn. They took this know-how outdoors, too. Their excitement for a good bonfire was catching. Some of my favorite memories of fall include fires, from my early days at our elementary school October weenie roasts to more recent gatherings at my sister’s, where we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows in a limestone fire pit my nephew built.
The expanse of “yard” (really too small a term for the woodsy property where I grew up) was also ideal for a bonfire just steps away from the house. In my family, very little persuading — or even much time — has ever been needed to conjure up a weenie roast.
A suggestion of it — along with maybe a crisp fall day, some sharp sticks and a package of hot dogs quick-thawed from the freezer — and the whole enterprise could be up and running and any and all of us reveling in it in about a half an hour, holding our roasting weenies over the glow of properly dwindled logs, smoke snaking its way (no matter where we were seated or standing) to our eyes, clothes and hair.
The place at home where we made many of our fires I called the “meadow” when I was a girl because of its unique openness, windless within the seclusion of oak, elm, ash and cedar trees and the soft grass that comforted my bare feet. Once it acquired the old swinging settee and chairs and the regular fires within a circle of cinder blocks, my mom called it “The Sit,” and it inspired blazes from the heat of summer through winter … one year, our weenie roast bonfire took place under falling snow.
If it was impromptu, a weenie roast took about as long to commence as getting a good fire going, gathering a few condiments and paper plates in a cardboard box, and my dad clicking open his pocket knife to whittle some long thin branches into spears for hot dogs and marshmallows, plenty of both of which ended up in various stages of blistered char.
If a more “elaborate” roast was planned, there would be my mom’s baked beans, or even a batch of my dad’s chili for chili dogs, and a simple dessert (like the chocolate-marshmallow cookies shared here). No matter how planned, the weenie roast was the opposite of fancy — unfussy and literally down-to-earth.
Sometimes the crowd around the fire was large, friends and relatives; sometimes just immediate family, dogs with pleading expressions and a couple of Barred Rock hens who weren’t invited, but had just the right jumping skills to help themselves to our food.
For most of us, the fire was the draw here more than food. The crackling flames and warming smell of wood smoke hold their trancing pull to keep us close, and we are there to have a laugh or a good scare or a little time out in nature, rather than against it. As we were meant to be.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
Chocolate-Marshmallow Cookie Recipe