Mountain Living

Building the Fire

First serious snow of the year on the mountain—about five inches–and I am thinking about the long winter  season to come as I gaze at my window boxes full of white mounded pansies. Winter isn’t really here just yet. In October, the season teases: One day there’s snow, another sun and 72 degrees. Still my mind turns toward fire building and soup making, feeling the yawn of cold weather stretching out before me. 

As soon as the days shorten and the temperatures slip down the thermometer, I begin a morning ritual. Before coffee, before even washing my face, I build a fire. On good days, I am prepared with kindling and pine stacked in a bucket near the wood stove, but there are many many mornings when I put on my boots and trudge out into the cold, dim-lit yard to gather what I need from the pine and oak piled nearby. Inside, I pull out the stove’s ash pan, emptying it into a bucket nearby and load the stove with crumpled old New York Times and slivers of pine. If I am patient and build the fire carefully with the proper materials–dried wood and enough kindling–the pine catches and I add bigger and bigger chunks of wood, shifting to oak as soon as the fire is hot enough. But if I am impatient or the wood is too big or too wet, I have to go back again and again, rebuilding a fire that’s gone inexplicably out, adding more wood, more paper, and blowing the billowing smoke back that wants to seep out into the living room.

Like fire building, soup making requires precision to build its flavor. So, after my wood stove is roaring with cheery flames, I turn my attention to corn chowder, a soup that tastes like the last bit of summer and is a good transition soup to cooler days. The recipe is simple, but like fire building, requires good ingredients and proper observation of steps. With the last of the season’s corn on hand, I cut kernals from the cob while I heat butter to foaming in a copper Dutch oven before adding chopped yellow onions to be sautéed until just translucent. Once the onions are thin and soft, I salt them and then add bay leaves and fresh thyme. When the house is filled with the scent of fall, I add the kernals, a pinch of sugar and more salt, and let the mixture steep until the corn releases its milky juices. 

Then, I add the cobs and enough chicken stock to cover the mixture which I will let simmer all morning, gathering and concentrating the essence of corn. Later, I will let the mixture rest and cool and then remove the cobs and bay leaves, puree the corn, and reheat the soup. Just before serving, I will mount it with a little butter, to add fat and a punch of flavor, and season with salt and cracked black pepper. Having prepared the soup one step at a time, I trust the ingredients will become something more than their individual parts.  Like fire building, if I am patient, the soup will be lovely.

This morning, I imagine my fire building and soup making to be something of a symbolic act. In the face of Colorado’s 100-year flood and the reality of my community gone south like winter birds, displaced for the coming months because Jamestown has neither water nor sewage, easily accessible roads nor even phones, I am consumed with the steps of constructing and reconstructing. While my friends, many of whom have lost homes, put the pieces of their lives back together inch by agonizing inch, I imagine myself sitting on the mountain, building the fire for their return. 

For me, this means staying put and cooking. Fire building or soup making are rituals that make way for cozy winter days and delicious meals. They are also an act of faith:  By laying the fire and taking the time to build soup flavors, I prepare for a season of rest before the returning blossoms of spring. In the same way, every person affected by the flooding of Jamestown, whether displaced by the now primitive conditions or because the river took their home, continues to perform the day to day steps to prepare the way for what Jamestown that is to come. We don’t yet know where the river, which rerouted itself through town, will be, or how many constructable lots are left along its banks, but observing the ritual, taking our time, having patience, we know that what will be is something more than our individual stories of loss and heartbreak, and we have faith that it will be something deep with flavor and made richer by the part each  of us played in its imagining and its construction.    

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