Friday, April 27, 2012


Do you remember your first fire? Do you remember how you built your first fire, where you were? Were you alone? Did someone teach you?

Do you build fires these days? In a Weber barbecue? In a heater stove in your house? Do you handle split seasoned trees, with gloves or in your bare hands? How does the wood feel in your grip? What’s your technique: How do you build a fire?

I’m inviting you to write me about your experiences with fires — not the destructive blaze that reduced a home to charred remains; and not the inferno that ran faster than wild animals through a forest. I am interested in hearing about your experience with a personal fire, the intimacy of building a fire for cooking or for warmth. I’ll receive your reports and publish some of them here, on the blog. Send them to P.O. Box 1275, Twisp. Wa. or my email address,

My wood-fired oven is a centerpiece of experience at Tappi, and keeping a fire there is part of my job that is solitary and gratifying and fascinating.

The fire in my oven lives and leads and follows. It’s a wild thing in my dining room. It can be ferocious or quiet, flare suddenly or wait patiently. Interacting with that fire in my oven, where temperatures range from 700 to 1200 degrees during my work, is an intimate experience. Reflecting on the power of fire in my life, and my encounters with it since childhood, has been a surprisingly deep experience as I write this.

Fires are memories. They flicker and warm me, now sixty years old in my sixty year old house on Burton Street in Twisp, as I sit at my desk feeling the propane stove radiating behind me and watching through my patio window, glorious spring morning sun warm the backyard.

When I was seven I burned up army men in the basement. My cousin Tony was 18 months younger and trusted everything I said; so when I brought out the shoebox of plastic soldiers and a matchbook and led Tony downstairs into the old furnace room at 44 Summit Rd in Tacoma, where we grew up, he followed me. We piled the green guys in a pyramid and I struck the match. The flame was mesmerizing, the stink nauseating, and the waxy hardened puddle of green stuck hard to the concrete floor. I learned my first and strongest lesson about fire as well as taking responsibility for my actions. After my mother caught us, I tried to fake her out by pointing my finger at Tony; She didn’t stare at me long, but it was long enough to squeeze a confession; I can still feel a guilty flutter when I remember blaming my dear, innocent cousin.

My Sicilian grandmother, Angela Zagame Bonica, also built hot fires in the basement of that house, but she tended her’s in a cast iron stove in the laundry room. That stove was in the house in ’48 when my parents bought it; the house itself dated to 1886, the same year Angela Zagame was born. The stove — as I remember it — could have been that old. Not to say it was rickety; it was not. On the contrary, it was as stout as a stump, and burned with an even severity. Nonna, for that’s what I called my grandmother, was not much of a cook. But she stoked a long hot blaze in that black stove, opening its heavy door to a bright yellow and white fire within, simmering a Sicilian tradition, vino cotto, a heavy black sweet syrup that we prized for holiday treats. Vino cotto was the only concoction I remember nonna bothering with; she was too impatient to spend much time cooking — maybe an egg if she couldn’t wait for my mom to cook for her. Vino cotto simmered in a commercial size kettle on that stove, Nonna keeping the fire crackling and the cast iron ticking with its deep even heat for three days while the raisins bubbled away to a thick liquid as black as licorice. The big pot’s exhalations varnished the walls of the room with tackiness that snagged dust from the wood bin.

I learned to build a legitimate, outside fire at the bottom of a seam of wilderness, the great gulch, that ran through the middle of Tacoma, where I grew up, using cedar bark and twigs and deadfall. Kneeling, palms open on the damp earth, my left cheek so close to leafy decay that it brushed my skin and its deep scent filled my nose, I watched the match flame flicker and catch. I blew softly into the tinder pile listened to the small crackle of fire coming to life. Those first fires were an exquisite intimacy for a young boy, and in some mysterious way, freeing. They lighted my path.

There have been other beautiful and memorable fires; and they were usually solitary, shared with no one, light and warmth in the intimacy of being alone in the woods. In the cedar grove on Lost River, in the throat of the canyon a day’s walk above Monument Creek, where I spent days solo with a black dog and a fly rod, there was the small snapping fire of cedar twigs. I kept a low flame to sizzle the skin of the two small wild cutthroat I ate in September’s late afternoon light, with a cup of whiskey and spring water to help warm me after a day of wading. Another year, further downstream, I built a larger fire — maybe ten inches across — in a ring of stones, canter-levering the six inch cast iron skillet I carried, along with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, a ripe tomato wrapped in a heavy sweater, and a sweet yellow onion: the dimensions of Lost River trout, a dish I built in seclusion on my favorite drainage in the world, a vivid and well-seasoned meal which never tastes as good as it does there.

1 comment:

  1. Very personal and description writing, and I find enjoyment in reading your blogs. Thank you.