Romancing the fireplace (1)

This is Part 1 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, 19 Sept 2004, Vol. 16 No. 37. It’s 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!
For many urbanites, the word evokes a lovely romantic evening or a Christmas family gathering. To me, it conjures a very different scene: that of a farm kitchen hearth, centered around what we in Northern Luzon call dallikan.

“Fireplace.” For many urbanites, the word evokes a lovely romantic evening or a Christmas family gathering. Preferably in a mountain resort or temperate clime, of course. For most Filipinos, any yearning for the idealized Western fireplace, complete with thick logs and cozy rugs, could only come true if they had money to rent a Baguio townhouse or to visit rich relatives in Canada.

To me, “fireplace” evokes a totally different scene: that of a farm kitchen hearth, centered around what we in Northern Luzon call dallikan. It isn’t a very tidy place, by middle class standards. That’s because a farm household would always have diverse stuff hanging to dry on sooty rafters above the hearth — ears of maize, strips of jerky or eel, braids of garlic, miscellaneous herbs, a monkey’s tail or some trapper’s trophy.

The cook will have other things nearby — a clutter of jars, pots and nondescript utensils. stacks of firewood and kindling material. There will be that distinctive ricestalk-bamboo-wood-smoke smell that evokes a rustic feeling I can’t begin to describe. And dogs, cats and chicken on the lookout for edible tidbits that the kitchen god is kind enough to toss in their direction.


I know these, not because I was brought up on a farm (we siblings were thoroughly urbanized despite summer visits to the home province), but because our parents decided that their large urban household needed a farm-style hearth.

So they built one out back adjoining the main house, with a GI-sheet chimney and roofed against wind and rain, where one could snugly sit on tools for fireside chats while preparing meals. As a child puttering around the languid fire and playing with saleng (pinewood) splinters, I used to hear all sorts of folklore from a motley crew of spinster aunts and cousins, whose constant musings on rural life must have been stirred by the aroma of lauya and dinengdeng simmering over woodfire.

For me, this was the kitchen — not that other, antiseptic kitchen of electric appliances and Formica-topped shelves inside the main house, modeled from Better Homes and Gardens, that guests saw while dining with the family. Later on, in high school, I was stunned to hear classmates refer to my kitchen using the term “dirty kitchen.” (Shades of “dirty ice cream.”)

Not that my school friends’ parents didn’t have “dirty kitchens” in their own homes. Many did, and used them regularly. (Like we bought and enjoyed the street cart vendor’s “dirty ice cream” anyway.) Using dirty kitchens was simply a persistent rustic habit that the Americanized urban middle class of the 1960s wouldn’t admit  to having retained.


The 1970s changed all that, I think. First Quarter Storm boys and girls rose up to declare that living like the masa — or living actually with the masa — was not just chic rhetoric but truly heroic.

In rural villages and peasant huts throughout the land, landed-scion tisoys from Ateneo and La Salle and colegiala tisays from Maryknoll and St. Scho learned to cook and eat like peasants. Perhaps not coincidentally — I don’t have any sure or first-hand knowledge about any correlation — many classy restaurants proudly adopted the ambience of barrio cuisine and kamayan dining in those same years.

Also, in a very practical sense, the 1973-74 oil crisis forced many Filipino urban homes to increasingly rely on farm-style hearths fueled by scrap wood, sawdust, rice hull, old newspapers, cartons — any junk that could burn fairly clean and steady without toxic fumes. In short, the “dirty kitchen” went mainstream.

A decade later, in 1983-84, in the aftermath of the Aquino assassination, another convulsion of the same chronic crisis pushed more urban households to revert to “dirty kitchen” technology, in order to supplement or fully replace costly petro-based fuels. The media (remember Asyong Aksaya?) was full of appeals and practical tips on using power-saving devices and alternative energy sources.


My parents, whose zeal for Ilocano thrift was equaled only by that of their Catholic faith, were miles ahead of the neighbors in this regard.

They wangled a free and steady supply of sawdust, wood shavings and other scrap by the sackful from a woodworks shop. Aside from using the main fireplace, they also acquired two specially-made cooking stoves to more efficiently burn the assorted scrap. They tapped into other firewood sources, like one junkshop that sold salvaged lumber by the pile. Our backyard kitchen sometimes looked like a sawmill camp.

Decades later, with my own household to sustain through the hard times of 2003-04, I would replicate the urban dallikan of my childhood. I would also buy scrap wood by the sackful from the local lumber yard, at 50 pesos per bundle that weighed perhaps 30 kilos, and heave it on my shoulders for the uphill climb.

I spend a tremendous effort to stock on wood, not just for the exercise, and not just to save on LPG fuel, but to touch base. I do the work with the same passion as that of lovers yearning for the romance of the fireplace — the soothing warmth that overwhelms the soul as the fire tempers cold nights and chilly mornings.# Part 2 | Part 3.


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