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Monday, November 23, 2009

cook fires

It's a damp cold day today. I've looked out at gray skies and mostly bare branches. So naturally I thought of past cold damp days.

We used to go camping in late September- early October, sometimes later even than that. This kind of weather reminds me of it-cold and windy. We loved it and never found it too cold.

And that reminds me of the way my father built fires. My dad always thought he knew the best way to build a campfire and he taught my brother and me the “way to do it.” I was always dis-satisfied with the results of cooking over his campfires. He started with this huge bonfire and then proceeded to tell us that we had to wait until there was a good bed of coals to cook over it. Of course he never started the fire until it was almost time to eat and the fire didn't have time to 'burn down.' Most often we were cooking hot dogs and inevitably we began sticking our wiener sticks over the flames long before the fire was ready. We ended up eating hot dogs, smoky and blistered on the outside, sometimes burnt, but still cold or at best mildly warm inside. Deep inside I knew there had to be a better way, but I never did it often enough to develop a Method.

It wasn’t until I was married, living next door to my mother-in-law and cooking with her that I learned how to build an effective cooking fire. Mom of course learned how to do it from generations of Navajo women preparing meals without the benefit of a stove. My husband and other Navajo men could cook just as well if they didn't try to get fancy.

First the boys ( my husband’s nephews who grew up at Mom’s house) were dispatched to bring a sizable pile of fire wood to the area where we would be cooking. Unlike my dad, who lit a small ‘starter’ fire and then proceeded to pile the entire heap of wood on top, the boys under Mom’s direction built a small fire--probably no more than 12 inches across. As it blazed nicely they gradually added more sturdy chunks of wood and extended the fire slightly to the side. When a bed of coals developed on one side, that became the cooking area. Mom would then rake the hot coals level and cook over those. She continued to add wood to the main part of the fire and kept her bed of coals hot. The fire never got larger than a couple feet in diameter. That was less that half the size of my father’s!

On that tiny fire, Mom could fry potatoes, roast chilies and bake naaniskaadi. I learned to do that too.

Years later, after Louie was gone, I went camping with my brother and his family. Sure enough, he built this gigantic fire that was impossible to cook over. I could NOT tell him differently. He insisted this was the “way to do it.” I should just hush up and let him alone. So while the kids complained they were hungry, we waited for the big logs in a huge pile to burn down to coals.

Long before the fire was at cooking heat, my brother decreed we should put our pot of pork and beans on the side and begin cooking hot dogs. I couldn’t tell him any differently although by that time, tutored by Louie’s mom, I had cooked many meals over open fires. And of course, the hotdogs were blistered on the outside and cold on the inside. The beans stuck on the bottom of the pot but weren’t really hot.

Sadly, the only ones who knew what they could taste like were my kids, who had eaten food cooked on real campfires and knew that a good cook fire wasn’t five feet across!

When we left there were still some big charred logs remaining that we had to dump water on.

So there you have it --just a memory that popped up because of the weather. Probably my cold toes helped with the recollection, too. I don't need to tell you that both my kids know how to make a good Navajo Cook Fire. And they can cook over it too--Rachael better than Notah.

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