WHEN A SNOW-STORM THREATENS (and there is a mighty one brewing here in the Northeast just now), I always pray that the power won’t go out. But I’ve learned not to panic when it does. For I live in a house that was built in 1826, long before electric outlets or generators were known. Would you like to see how my partner and I stay warm, well-fed, and yes — even entertained — when our modern appliances fail?
Back in December, 2006, when the power went out for 5 days, I learned a very important fact: The early-19th century occupants of this house did not freeze in winter. Indeed, the fireplace in the parlor (above) heats the room quickly and efficiently. I think the shallow firebox — typical of all Federal-era fireplaces — is responsible for the rapid production of ambient heat. When the power goes out, we camp out in the parlor, reading books and playing Scrabble by firelight and candlelight.
A “Rumford” fireplace keeps the dining room warm. Count Rumford, a tinkerer and British loyalist (he fled the United States after the Revolutionary war), discovered that a firebox with angled sides produces more radiant heat than a straight-sided box. And he was right. With only five pieces of split wood, the dining room turns toasty-warm in only 30 minutes. We host dinner parties whenever we want — electricity be damned.
Upstairs, yet another fireplace heats the bedroom. Whether the power goes out or not, I like to light a fire just before going to bed. It takes the chill out of the air until I get settled under the comforter.
And if you are in need of reading material, whether by daylight, electric light, or candlelight, I can highly recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior. I may very well offer this book as a giveaway. Let me know if that appeals to you.
As for cooking, I rely on the fireplaces. Above, at the parlor fireplace, I’m cooking Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic in a cast-iron skillet. The skillet is set between two bricks, with hot embers underneath. If you have a fireplace, you can cook anything and everything on its hearth. I’ve baked a quiche in a Dutch oven set over hot embers. I’ve also roasted whole potatoes, onions, and fish fillets by burying them under a pile of hot ashes. Folks, open-hearth-cooking rocks!
Of course, during a power failure, you can’t while away the hours watching cable TV, DVDs, or Roku. But if you spent your childhood learning how to play the piano — I did — then the question of entertainment is solved. For a piano requires no electricity whatsoever. Consequently I can entertain myself or my guests (but only if they ask), with some of the finest music in the world. I simply place a pair of candelabra on the instrument to light the printed music. You know, like Liberace.
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