Woodstoves and Decembers go hand-in-hand like peaches and cream, cigars and whiskey, walnut and boiled linseed oil, love and marriage – natural combinations of things that can be good on their own but are all the better for being paired together. Snowy December days can be beautiful in the North Country but many of them, especially the stormy ones, are most beautiful when viewed through a frosty window while seated near a woodstove’s roaring fire, watching the steam rise from wool mittens and leather boots that are ice-covered from a morning walk with the dogs.
Sound asleep beside you, the dogs are also steaming as the clumps of ice in their coats melt away. They may not have your level of appreciation for the aesthetic wonder of a winter storm, but they enjoy the heat of the wood stove every bit as much as you – maybe more. You all make the same spontaneous moans and groans and sighs of contentment as the frozen firewood snaps and pops in the flames, and you are all bathed in the same golden glow shimmering from the glass window of the firebox door. Drowsy happiness.
Come December the woodstove has resumed its rightful place as the center point of life in our 140-year-old log house. After a summer’s labor of cutting, hauling, spitting, and stacking a few cords of firewood, cleaning the chimney, blacking the stove’s cast iron top and sides, and scrubbing the creosote from the door glass in preparation for this mid-winter day that I knew would come, I feel entitled to the extravagant pleasure of baking myself toasty warm while the thermometer outside on the deck drops into the single digits and a 20-mile-per-hour northwest wind whips gusts of snow through the woods.
No, this is not the first woodstove fire of the season. A couple low, slow fires burned each week in October to take the morning chill from the kitchen, and prouder fires burned every other day through November as autumn worked itself up into the petulant mood that would erupt in full-blown winter-storm tantrums in December.
But those earlier fires were not the winter-defying, roaring-stove blazes that make the stovepipe glow and fill the house with the acrid odor of hot metal – and an occasional puff of wood smoke when I forget to open the flu before unlatching the stove door to throw another split of red elm onto the inferno. Today’s conflagration of flaming logs stacked on a thick bed of red-hot coals is a December fire.
The woodstove has secondary benefits. A kettle of soup can be kept bubbling away and added to indefinitely, flavor modified each day by some experimentation with various herbs and spices (try both oregano and chili powder, but not in the same kettle). On many a winter day the whistle of a tea kettle steaming atop the stove prompts me to prepare a mug of what I erroneously call Sherpa Tea. My recipe starts with a pot of black tea brewed so strong its color is dark as French roast coffee. I pour it into an oversized, heavy porcelain cup one-third full of cream and add two heaping spoonsful of brown sugar.
There is no yak butter or salt in the brew, so it’s wrong for me to call it Sherpa Tea (Su Cha, if you are in the Himalaya Mountains). Maybe someday I will dare to pour the tea over a lump of butter churned from the milk of a Brown Swiss cow, but this December I’m sticking with the cream-and-brown-sugar concoction that is my traditional, though wrongly termed, Sherpa Tea. I don’t recommend it as a refreshing beverage on a hot day in July, but in December Sherpa Tea is a comfort food of the gods.
Although a freshly baked kolache is the perfect complement to the tea, Christmas season is the time that cinnamon-dusted snickerdoodle cookies appear in my household, and a couple of those will do just as well. Then I pull my bulkiest ragg wool stocking cap down over my balding head, lean back in one kitchen chair, put my feet up on another, crack open one of my favorite books, and wait out the winter storm: warm and cozy and well-fed and smug as a Hobbit in his hillside burrow.
The time may come when I have to endure a December without a woodstove. Until then I intend to make the most of their wonderful synergy.
More stories about deer hunting, bird hunting, and life in the North Country are published in collections of essays and novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page
Lovely image, cozy house, bundled up, warm fire in the stove, man(kind) against the elements. Almost makes me want to move north, almost. But no, I think the frigid 60º day promised will have to suffice. Wonderful piece, though. You almost had me….
Every woodland home has its advantages and disadvantages. The Texas Southlands are warmer in than the North Country in December, so you do not have to put on three or four layers of clothes before venturing out on 3-degree morning, but you forfeit the joys of loafing beside the woodstove. And 60-degree days — well, they do not call for a hot mug of Sherpa Tea. Snickerdoodles are universal, though.
I so enjoy the pictures this conjured up in my mind. I’ve always wanted a country place, enough tillable to plant corn or soybeans or sunflowers with squash rambling among their neighbors…the crops…other than the squash…more for the rightful residents of my Eden. Heaven forbid if some milkweed should sneak in.
I smiled when you mentioned red elm. In my fourth winter of wedded bliss, we rented a very large, very beautiful four-sqare on Madison Road. The snag was that it was really uninsulated. I could, and should write some essays if our time there…but later. It was proving to be a viciously cold winter…either that or the thermometer had frozen below zero. We did have a wood stove, far too small, but helpful. By early December we were already hard pressed to teach and cut enough wood to keep up. Most of it was white elm…which I called piss elm because it seemed no matter how long it dried, it still held moisture. That was the year we got the best Christmas present ever. Our nephew and Godson showed up with two full cords of aged, dry red elm. Heaven sent! Ever enjoyed the aroma of walnut smoke?
Bob – that was a wondrous gift indeed. Red elm is the best firewood of the North Country.