Friday, January 26, 2018

Why a Woodburning Cookstove?

My sister-in-law and her husband are serving as the American "parents" of a twenty-year-old Iowa State University college student from Vietnam.  He originally was a high school foreign exchange student in the town where my sister-in-law is a schoolteacher, so they have known him for a period of almost four years now.  I first met him when he was an All-State speech participant, and I enjoy him very much.  (I also enjoy watching Susan be a parent to a young adult.)

I was not privy to the conversation, but I understand that Susan explained to "Bill" that I cook on a woodburning cookstove, and Bill could not understand why any American "would want to live like the people in Vietnam."  While in Iowa, Bill also saw some Amish riding in a horse-drawn buggy, and again, his question was simply "Why?"

Making wild plum jelly on the Margin Gem last
week.  I had frozen the juice during the summer
because standing and stirring a pot over a raging
fire is a lot more comfortable in the dead of winter.
Bill's question has stuck with me.  I've been cooking over wood for over twenty years now, and for some reason, no one has asked me why for a very long time.  Furthermore, since it has become such a normal part of my life, I no longer think about the "why" of it much either.  It does seem, though, that it is a question that is worthy of an answer (and a blog post).

What I have written below are my "whys" for cooking on a woodburning cookstove.  They are not listed in order of importance, but rather in the order that they occurred to me.  I suspect that these will be similar to many other people's reasons for cooking on a wood cookstove, but please utilize the comments section to either concur or add any other reasons that I do not include.

1. Increased Self-Sufficiency

We are by no means an island, and never will be.  We have, by today's standards, a great deal of family nearby, and we are quite interdependent upon them.  We are fairly active in our community, and even though we live on an Iowa Century Farm, we are right on the beaten path.  In fact, our road is so busy and our house so close to it that sometimes it sounds as if the grain trucks are barreling through our living room.  Furthermore, we are only minutes away from downtown Omaha, Nebraska.

However, we do enjoy a modicum of self-sufficiency.  It is a rare event that we have a meal made of entirely store-bought foods, and why shouldn't the farm that produces so much of what we eat also produce much of the fuel needed to cook and preserve that food, too?  When cooking with electricity or propane, we are dependent on business entities to provide that ability (sure, once our propane tank is full, we can cook for a long time, but not indefinitely).  With the woodburning cookstove, we are able to cook as long as we are able to procure fuel--something we can do without being dependent on others.

Making supper on the wood cookstove.  Potatoes
were baking in the regular oven, but its temperature
was higher than what I wanted to bake our fish, so
I baked the fish in the stovetop oven which you see
over the firebox.  It worked really well.

2. Economics

It is true that the Margin Gem cookstove is expensive, especially when you buy the hot water heating set up that we have.  When we purchased ours, my brother-in-law asked me if it was the Cadillac of new wood cookstoves on the market today.  "No," I said in self-deprecation, "but it is the Lincoln."  Even at that, though, when you put pencil to paper, the Margin Gem has paid for itself already, and we are only in the sixth heating season with it.  Now, every time we use the cookstove for cooking, heating, or water heating, we are money ahead, and the stove and water heating setup have decades of service ahead of them.

3. Disaster Preparedness

I don't consider myself a prepper, but I am perhaps a little more prepared for disaster than some people.  In the course of my lifetime, we have had only about five power outages that lasted more than a few hours, but before having a woodburning cookstove they were much more disruptive than they are now.

Truthfully, I think this point deserves a whole blog post of its own.  You can see that here.

4.  Aesthetics

When I was growing up, my mom subscribed to Ideals magazine.  Long before I became an English teacher and could appreciate the poetry and short prose pieces in this magazine, I would search each new copy for the utopian pictures of historic kitchens.  They always prominently featured ornate antique cookstoves.

This image is from the 1966 Thanksgiving
issue of Ideals magazine.  This one was
before my time, but lots of similar pictures
passed through my hands as a youngster.
I was also raised on a steady diet of Michael Landon's Little House on the Prairie and Father Murphy television shows, both of which offered viewers memorable views of wood cookstoves in set dressers' versions of old fashioned kitchens.

Melissa Sue Anderson as Mary Ingalls in front of a cookstove.
At about that same time, my aunt Ellen subscribed to Country Living magazine, and then we eventually had our own subscription.  Wood cookstoves frequently appeared as both functional or decorator items in those magazines, and they were a frequent topic of discussion.

All this is to say that I grew up with plenty of visual influences that made it seem as if a woodburning cookstove made a kitchen complete.

5. It is Old-Fashioned

This is probably silly, but I like cooking on a wood cookstove because it is old-fashioned.  I have always been fascinated with the old ways of doing things--a fact which I attribute to my great-great aunt Meme, who was a huge influence on me growing up.  She would be the first to deny that she had romanticized life in the late 1800s and early 1900s while she reminisced with me on her knee.  However, I think, just as our minds so often do, her memory only recalled the good things about life on an Iowa farm in the olden days.  Without meaning to, she helped create in me a longing for a time I never knew.  I'd wax poetic and say that it was a simpler time, but I don't know that I'm convinced it really was.  Either way, my penchant toward old-fashioned living has caused me to be frequently accused of having been born in the wrong decade.

6. Efficiency

I find that my cooking style changes in the non-wood cookstove months largely because I tend to not be willing to "waste" the extra electricity or propane that it takes to make that finishing touch or special little thing, and I certainly try to avoid the dishes that have long cooking times.  I also find that I do more experimental cooking when I'm using the wood cookstove because I don't feel bad about the wasted energy if the product is a flop.

The other thing about the wood cookstove is that rather than having one fire cook only one vessel of food, the same fire heats all of the pots, whatever is in the oven, and the water to wash the dishes after the meal.  I think that is very efficient.

7. It Just Feels Right

I don't know how to explain this one any better.  I just know that feeling the heat radiating from the cookstove while I'm standing over it stirring something seems somehow right.  When I'm cooking over an electric stove or a gas stove, it just doesn't feel quite like I'm really cooking.  I don't know how to describe it any other way.

That's all I can think of at the moment.  Wood cookstove using readers, fill up the comments please!


  1. Jim,

    I am surprised there haven’t been any comments on this thoughtful post.

    When I was a graduate student at Iowa State University, there was another graduate student in the department from Vietnam (this was a little more than a decade after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam). I recall one day he came into our office elated: he had dreamed in English the night before! He was becoming an American.

    If I had set out to write my thoughts on “Why a Woodburning Cookstove?” it would have read very much like yours.

    John Gould, in “The House that Jacob Built,” wrote, “Ranges nowadays run to gas, coal, oil and electricity – four fuels not produced on our farm.” After World War II, they replaced the house that Jacob built (which burned to the ground). They chose to replace the range Aunt Martha bought (destroyed in the fire) with a wood burning range. It was an Atlantic, “the same identical Atlantic Range our grandmother used, except that it now had a white front.”

    Our Kitchen Queen is white, and we have a white Waterford Stanley I have been working on for a couple years. It is not in use.

    Mr. Gould also wrote, “The labor of getting [firewood] is good for me, it gives me plenty of healthy exercise in the open, and I have a power saw for working it up.”

    That would be a reason I would include in my list. I can use all the exercise I get – and making firewood is good for that. I do not use a hydraulic splitter, except for too-green elm. I find splitting by hand is faster (most of the time) and there is less crouching, as there is with a vertical splitter. I have operated a crosscut saw, and it is more exercise than using a chainsaw. However, it would be impossible for me to bring in sufficient firewood for a season using that mode.

    I am wholly with you regarding preparedness. We could not begin to be accused of being preppers, but when the power goes off, the pressure-lamps are lit and the cook stove makes it all cozy. If we had a way to maintain water pressure, our life would not be disrupted at all.

    We have Amish friends (also wood-fired cook stove users) who have two 90-gallon pressure tanks. That way, they can run their generator once a day to pressure up. Except on wash day, apparently once a day is sufficient. I hope to put something like that together someday. The difficulty of a power outage would be greatly diminished.

    I don’t think it’s silly to wish to do things the old-fashioned way. There is a lot to be learned, including an appreciation for the people who lived when “old fashioned” was all there was. Sarah Chrisman ( suggests the way to learn about history is the same as the way to learn about another culture – immerse yourself in it. Within limits, she tries to live like folks did during the Victorian era.

    I once knew a man who had lived through the Great Depression. When asked how he and his family managed, he replied that they had never had much prior to the Depression, so they just continued to live the way they always had. I imagine they did not have the latest technology. That might be a lesson for us all.

    We do not do as much cooking on our Kitchen Queen as you do on your Margin Gem – not even close. (It is our primary heat source.) Further, I am hardly even one of the cooks in my household. However, when something needs a lot of time to cook, like beans, I prefer that cooking to be done on or in the wood range. As you have pointed out, while these things cook, hot water is being produced, the house is heated, and anything else needing cooked or heated up can be taken care of without extra fuel.

    Thank you for your thoughts on “Why a Woodburning Cookstove?” I enjoyed the post!


  2. Brett,
    Thanks for your excellent comments! I think I'm going to have to get a copy of Gould's book. It sounds like it would be right up my alley. And you're right, gathering firewood is excellent exercise.

    1. Jim,

      You will want to look for "A Farmer Takes a Wife," by John Gould, first. "The House that Jacob Built" is kind of a sequel.

      Mr. Gould was a first cousin to Ralph Moody, who wrote several books, including "Little Britches." One of his books was "Fields of Home," in which he worked for his (and John's) grandfather on his farm in Maine. The house the grandfather lived in was the house that Jacob built, and was later occupied by John and his wife.

      Anyway, I like Mr. Gould's humor. Perhaps you will, too.


  3. Hats off to you ! I bought my first antique wood cookstove 16 years ago and it is our main source of meals, as well as homemade bread. I love my stove and have just bought another and this one is a bit older.

    Learning that certain species and size of wood produce different temperatures was my first lesson. I had to learn it myself as there was not much information 16 years ago.

    I will NEVER give up cooking on my wood stoves. I have a pot of vegetable soup simmering now and the warmth of the stove also heats the kitchen, saving still more money.

    Wood stoves are freedom. Freedom from the power company. Freedom from the gas company and freedom from starvation if civilization ever does erode (hopefully not) and....I enjoy cooking with them!

    So, thanks folks it is great to know of a kindred spirit! Keep on cookin' Thanks again for the blog!

    1. Well said, Pamela! Thank you for your comments!

  4. So happy to have found your blog when searching for a recipe. We have a Home Comfort cookstove. I enjoy stovetop cooking, but have trouble getting and keeping the oven hot enough for baking. Any tips? We have good wood for heat units, so I don't think that's my trouble. By the way, we live in Iowa also.

    1. Great to hear from you, Grandma Kate! I'm sorry I didn't see this comment until today; usually, I'm much better at timely responses.

      When you mention that you have good wood for heat units, I wonder if you simply need to split it smaller. I would try to split pieces down to about one-inch in diameter. You'll be able to get a lot of these into the firebox at once to bring the oven up to temperature, and then you can figure out the rhythm of adding small sticks to maintain it.

      I have a series of four posts that specifically talk about how to manage the heat in a wood cookstove oven. They start in January of 2013 and have a lot of information about this exact issue. I think you would enjoy them.

      So great to hear from a fellow Iowa wood cookstove enthusiast! Feel free to comment often!