This is the concluding third of a three-part essay (one of my all-time favorites) I wrote for my “Pathless Travels” column, which was published in Northern Weekly Dispatch, 3 Oct 2004, Vol. 16 No. 39. Part 1 and Part 2 were posted here earlier. The essay is already dated in some spots, but mostly it speaks equally well of how I feel now about fireplaces, as how I felt about this inspiring topic in 2004. I hope you enjoy reading it!
Starting and sustaining a fire looks easy enough. If you observe peasants, rural housewives, or forest dwellers go about their daily tasks around the hearth, you will discern a quiet grace in the way they tend to the fire and cooking pot with the least fuss and effort.
“No sweat. I could do that too,” you might say to yourself.
I thought so, too, at first. After all, I had the typical 1960s street child’s summer experience of lutu-lutuan, in which we kids cooked handfuls of rice (filched from the family store) in sardine cans on a little makeshift stove of cobblestones. Four years and seven Scout camps later, I had turned into a smug 12-year-old expert on eating out of tin cans heated on crummy stick-and-brush fires.
It would take me 20 more years to concede that I had learned almost nothing about the Zen of fireplace cooking.
In a way, yes, the whole business of making a fire is too easy, almost taken for granted. Give them stocks of of dry firewood and heaps of kindling material (or a flask of kerosene, or camp fireballs made of wax) in a sheltered fireplace, and amateur campers will quickly build up a raging bonfire for a hotdog barbecue.
The real challenge, however, is not in producing just any kind of blaze, but a steady cooking fire on a clean ember bed — a fire that doesn’t smother itself in thick smoke, or turn your broiled bangus into a crisp morsel of black char, while your Cinderella face becomes a tearful grimace. You need a reliable kind of fire for doing the same chore twice or thrice a day, rain or shine, like clockwork.
The hardest test, at least for camp newbies who were pampered on electric rice cookers like me, is to successfully use wood fire to cook soft, fluffy, steaming rice. I mean, in a great iron pot good for 15-20 people. Not mushy-soft, not gritty half-cooked, not crusty or toasted rice, but just right, with an evenly cooked texture from top to bottom.
Some think the secret is in the ratio of rice to boiling water. Others say the key is in the final turn of the pot and a sprinkling of salt. No, these are minor things. The big secret is in keeping a steady shape and strength of the blaze so that the water is quickly brought to a boil, and in knowing exactly when to put out the blaze and set the pot down to steam on an even bed of glowing embers. The magical turn of the pot is just the finishing touch, like a Chinese artist marking his watercolor scene with calligraphy.
By the time you’ve perfected this great skill — and mind you, it didn’t come easy to me — you would have become a minor Zen philosopher too. As most old peasants, rural housewives, and phantom forest dwellers usually become, I should add.
But why consume great efforts to use wood fire for a meal of steaming rice and broiled fish and vegetables, you ask. Why not use a regular gas or electric stove instead, to get it done quickly with a flick of a switch? To push the logic further, you ask: why bother with home cooking at all, when you can go to a street corner turu-turo and take your pick from a half-dozen dishes?
And there, exactly, lurks the answer.
For most Filipinos who live together in households, it remains cheaper to shop in markets and to cook food ourselves than to buy at the turu-turo. As noted earlier, too, wood and alternative fuels are making a comeback as electric power rates and oil prices shoot sky-high.
But it’s more than just practical household economics. People find fulfillment in making things by themselves. Some insist in laboriously cross-stitching an intricate design instead of buying a cheaper machine-printed wall picture that looks like a cross-stitch. Others enjoy an exhausting cross-country hike when they could ride. Artists do calligraphy and rubber stamp art by hand, tediously and stubbornly, when they could use a computer and printer to produce similar images.
As for me, every two or three months or so, I would indulge myself in the luxury of a slow hard climb up to our place, perched on a steep slope that no motor vehicle could reach, while toting a 20- or 30-kilo bundle of scrap lumber on my shoulders — smelling fresh and dusty as when it left the sawmill — which I bought for 50 pesos from a lumber yard to replenish our stock of firewood.
Let me turn philosophical for a moment.
In some cases, the practical errand or helpful hobby or unique achievement is repeated, glorified over the years until it becomes overblown ritual, which obscures the original impulse.
Every year, thousands of athletes in big cities punish themselves in grueling marathon races — many of them unaware that the original protagonist was a Greek warrior-runner who trekked nonstop to carry a message to his king, finally expiring as he relayed the news of victory at the battle of Marathon.
In China, thousands of swimmers cross the Yangtze every winter, in continuing emulation of the practice of the Chinese Communist leaders to steel themselves for their long struggles ahead, including the legendary Long March.
Ritualized many of our cyclical activities might have become, but if we think about them some more, we would realize that they are the product of generations, nay, millennia, of humanity’s struggle to overcome its own limitations on a daily, almost routinary basis.
In other words, it isn’t just a matter of doing an errand, or enjoying a hobby, or performing an obligatory ritual detached from its origins. It is to fill a deep need to touch ground, to restore one’s roots, to preserve the basics of existence.
Opting to use a calculator doesn’t mean we stop learning arithmetic. Using industrially synthesized medicine doesn’t mean throwing away herbal remedies. Mastering English and Pilipino doesn’t mean forgetting our native tongues. Everyone — individuals, groups, communities, entire societies — has some role in preserving traditional role and crafts, even if that only means learning how to weave a rattan basket, or cooking a pot of steaming and perfectly done rice over wood fire. We all need a moderate dose of atavism as antidote to unsustainable growth and asymmetric globalization.
This leads us to wider economic reasons. It may sound like a paradox, but preserving the old helps bring out the new. If communities retain more of their traditional crafts and survival skills, then they are in a better position to innovate, using locally abundant materials and locally sustainable methods.
This is why, for example, the hand-weavers, the clay potters, the metalcraft artisans, the basi and vinegar makers of Ilocos and the Cordillera could survive by the skin of their teeth despite the onslaught of globalization. The ultimate lesson is that we all must walk to the future in the footprints of our ancestors. We all must learn to keep the fire burning until dawn brings the abundant light of day.
Sitting by the fire and gazing at the city lights in the distance, I smile at the poetic rightness of the thought.#