Tuesday, September 1, 2009

On Being "Powerless" - Daily Bread

In December 2008, the northeast was hit with an ice storm that wreaked havoc on the power distribution system. On that early Friday morning, the lights all over southern Maine went out.

But life goes on, right? And we had to eat.

We stopped buying convenience food, and unless I cook it, there aren't very many "grab-and-go" kinds of food in the pantry. Luckily, before the power went out, I was baking sweet breads.

After we got out of bed that first day and stoked the fire and took care of the animals outside, the bellies started rumbling. I put the kettle on the woodstove, to heat the water.

We have a french press coffee maker, and so making coffee for Deus Ex Machina was just business-as-usual once the kettle started steaming. I'm a tea drinker, and so, for me, it was the same. Nothing out of the ordinary.

In fact, during the winter, especially, I drink hot tea all day long. To save money on electricity and not use the electric stove so often, we usually just leave the tea kettle on the woodstove during the day, and I always have hot water.

For breakfast, I sliced the pumpkin bread I'd made the day before, dropped a bit of butter into one of our iron skillets, and "toasted" the bread. Toast from a toaster is nothing like the toast from a frying pan, and I actually prefer the latter, because I like the butter cooked into the bread rather than spread on top to melt and make the bread all soft and gooey.

After breakfast, I put a big pan of water on the woodstove to heat. The water would be used for washing and would stay there, all day, being refilled and reheated as needed, until the power was restored, and we could use the tankless gas heater (that has an electric igniter).

Since it was December, and it was cold, we kept the woodstove burning hot all day, too, which means that we always had a cooking surface without any need to "start" a fire. In fact, with regard to starting a fire, Deus Ex Machina and I challenge ourselves all winter to see how few matches we can use. Every morning, the goal is to start the fire using only the coals in the stove. We're easily amused.

We do have a gas grill, and we could have cooked outside, but it was being used for another purpose ;).

So, thanks to the woodstove, we had heat. We're on municipal water, and in this case, we never lost water. We have a regular old telephone (not a digital phone), and so we still had contact with the outside world.

On Saturday, when the power had been out for twenty-four hours, we started calling family members and friends to make sure they were all okay. ToolMom was without power, too, only she doesn't have a woodstove. We invited her over for dinner, and to stay overnight, if she wanted.

Our impromptu "power-out" dinner consisted of one pot of chicken soup (to use the broth that was in the refrigerator ... outside on the grill :) and one pot of split pea soup (to use the ham bone we had left over from Thanksgiving).

I also made bread.

Yes, on top of the woodstove.

I placed a "deep dish" pizza pan upside down on the top of the woodstove (so that the bread pan wouldn't be right on the hot surface - any baking dish would suffice), and then, I inverted a stainless steel kettle over top of the bread, effectively creating a little oven. I'm sure I could have baked just about anything I wanted. The only problem with doing it that way is that the bread doesn't ever really achieve that golden brown hue one likes in bread. But it baked through, and it was a yummy accompaniment to our soup.

During the four days the power was out, we ate a lot of things like soup, and things that could be fried, like eggs.

We kept the refrigerator stuff outside. What didn't fit in the cooler ended up on the grill :).

And we did all of our cooking on the cook-top of our fabulous woodstove.

We could have ordered pizza, and we could have gone out to eat every meal ... except that the first day, Friday morning, no one else in the area, including most of the restaurants, had power either. If we hadn't had our wood stove and our food stores, we would have had a pretty hungry day - although we could have eaten up some of that yogurt :).

We have a wood stove, and so it was a no-brainer for us, but I like to imagine what I would have done if I didn't have the wood stove, as I know so many people do not.

In my, personal, situation, I could have built a fire in our fire pit, *if* I had wood.

We could have used the grill for cooking, and in years past, when we had power outages, we did, making every thing from muffins to hardboiled eggs - on the grill.

But there have been times in my life when I had neither a grill nor a fire pit, and I was too poor to eat out, but I still had to cook meals.

Once, I was renting a house, and I didn't have the money to turn on the gas so that I could cook. I stacked some bricks on the cement patio outside, and then, started a fire in the make-shift fire pit. I put the oven rack on the bricks above the fire, and cooked right there. I even made cornbread that way. I put the batter in an iron skillet, which I put on the oven rack over the fire, and then, inverted a regular cardboard box over the bread. It cooked pretty quickly, and the box never did catch fire.

There are other options, too. I've cooked on a "hobo stove." We used a big coffee can for the cook surface, and the heat source was a tuna-fish sized can with a piece of cardboard coiled into it and then covered with wax so that it would burn very slowly. We fried eggs and bacon and pancakes on the top of it. And let me just say, that was some good chow!

We also have a "dessert fondue" set that uses a little tealight to melt the chocolate (it was a gift). It would be great for heating up things like soup or beans.

Most of the options I mentioned should be used outside, but the dessert fondue, or a homemade version, could be used right in the house, with care, because it is an open flame.

I think, the bottom line is, to be creative, and remember that all one needs to cook is a heat source.


  1. What a great seamless transition for you - no power = no problem. Good improvisational skills.

    On a camping trip we used a hobo stove (described above) to toast bread. I thought the idea was very ingenious - not that toast is a necessity, but it's nice.

  2. I remember my Aunt Sonie used to keep her refrigerator stuff sitting on in an unheated hallway in her house so that she could unplug her refrigerator to save money. A cousin of my husband lived in an old victorian style house that had a cold closet. Even in the summer it was cooler than the rest of the house though not refrigerator cold. Perhaps being in Maine you might consider building or procuring a cabinet that can sit on your back porch for storing such items in the winter to save on the electric.

  3. Wow, never would have thought you could bake bread on a woodstove. We have a grill and always keep an extra tank of gas for it, but I wouldn't relish standing outside in sub-zero weather to cook!

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I have found people think you can only cook on the wood stove if you have a Dutch oven. I was worried about trying to create one. My sister in law just paid $70.00 including shipping for hers. The recent food lines in California have put a bit of fear in me so I have started dehydrating foods along with my canning. The one question I had was how to bake bread on the woodstove. Thanks again