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Cooking With An Axe

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In the last couple of years, I've been doing as much cooking as I can with an axe. My family and I have a small, wood-fired, beehive oven in the backyard, and while cooking this way means more work than using a gas grill (to say nothing of a microwave), this, to me, is precisely the point. I'm not searching for devices that are "labor-saving." I'm looking for ways to make my labor saving.

Much has been made in recent years of our national eating disorder: our addiction to processed, industrial food is considered a symptom of -- and a contributor to -- a decline in traditional ways of cooking and eating, with widely documented health consequences. But this addiction has done more than just impoverish the national diet. It has also impoverished our imagination. We work too hard to cook, we tell ourselves. Far from being pleasurable, or therapeutic, or restorative, cooking is considered one more chore in day full of chores. Isn't life a whole lot easier when we can pop something in the microwave and be done with it?
But cooking can be much more than merely completing an onerous task. It can offer moments of fulfillment, glimpses of deeper meaning, a connection to old, even ancient traditions. To me, that seems like a pretty good return for a bit more effort. So when it comes to cooking, I've decided to do more work, not less.

Last Saturday, on a December morning cold enough that I could see my breath, my dogs and I went out to split wood on the back lot. I am speaking metaphorically here -- my family and I live on one-eighth of an acre in Baltimore. But out we went, nonetheless, to the woodpile.
The wood was good, seasoned oak, delivered by my friend Glen, a landscaper, whose wood also feeds the fires in a restaurant in town famous for its use of local produce and Chesapeake Bay seafood. I liked this idea, that the heat for my fire would come from a local forest, and not from an invisible gas line running back to god-knows-what distant source. Here in the mid-Atlantic, gas has become a complicated commodity, coming as it often does from hydraulic fracking wells up the road in Pennsylvania, or New York.

Glen's oak split easily, and cleanly. I stacked the fine pieces on an iron grate beneath the oven, and tossed the twisted grain into a pile by the nearby firepit, which is less fussy, and which in any case is used mostly for cooking marshmallows. The oven, in which we roast vegetables and make pizza, needs wood that is straight-grained, and which can, at the right time, be pushed off to one side to make room for the food. Even my neighbor, himself an avid outdoorsman, could tell how dry the wood was by the sound my axe made going through it. "Sounds like good wood," he called over the fenceline. For him, no doubt, the sound of the axe brought back the decades of campfires he has made around the region, and, perhaps, of the melancholy he felt last month when he finally sold his canoe. His wife is frail, and his paddling days may be coming to an end.

The physical pleasure of splitting wood is well known: the rhythmic rise and fall of the axe, the smell of the oak, the beauty of the revealed grain. But there is something else going on as well, something Proust would have recognized: the flood of involuntary, transporting memories that comes with every swing.

Chop. There, in my mind, is my Uncle Bill, a Maine woodsman who took me down the St. Croix River when I was 14, and first taught me how to use an axe.

Chop. There is my friend Walter, an expert paddler from North Georgia with whom I once explored Quebec's remote Moisie River, and who taught me how to make cathead biscuits over an open fire.

Chop. There is my friend Tom, a New Jersey contractor whose masters degree in Taoism so effectively taught him to chop wood and carry water that he took the lessons to heart, quit academia, and became a carpenter.

Cooking this way, even when all you're making is pizza, requires time, and it requires learning a few traditional skills: how to use an axe, how to make dough, how to know when a fire needs feeding, or tamping. But the pleasure these skills afford -- the connection to old ways of doing things, the satisfaction they provide when you serve a meal both prepared and heated with the skill of your own hands -- makes the whole process transforming. Chop your own firewood, the saying goes, and it will warm you twice. But cooking with an axe means going this one better: When you split your own wood to cook, it heats you a third time: in your belly.

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