Even in chilly climates and country settings, wood fires, the most ancient of heating methods, have begun to go out of favor due to health and environmental concerns. Still, a house that smells like wood smoke evokes primal memory and connection, as the poem below describes.
Whether you live in city or country, it’s an easy feeling to conjure without a wood burning stove or fireplace.
Here’s a wood stove illusion I devised to warm my Harlem apartment on extra cold mornings and evoke the feeling of beloved, ramshackle cabin in Appalachia I used to hole up to write in.
All you need is an oven (gas or electric) a cast-iron skillet and some fragrant wood chips.
You can buy many kinds of wood chips for a few bucks on Amazon (make sure to buy chips, which will smolder quickly, not chunks). Each wood has its own unique aroma. My favorite woods are apple, cherry and mesquite. Grapevine also makes a lovely smoke. I keep a Grapevine Wreath on hand to break 2-inch pieces off for smoking.
This Wood Smoke Flavor Chart will guide you to woods you might like, as well as alternatives like dried rosemary and sage, and ones to stay away from.
So even if you don’t have any wood chips yet, you can try this with dried sage or rosemary.
Place a cast iron skillet on the bottom of the oven. The bigger the flat bottom of the pan is, the easier it is to toss chips in. I’m contemplating buying a big rectangular cast-iron griddle to leave in the bottom of my oven. For now I’m using a cast-iron 10.5″ round griddle. Since cast-iron is pretty much indestructible, it can just live below your racks, moved only once in a while to empty the ash that will build up.
Turn the oven to 450′ or so. After about 20 minutes or so, throw a few wood chips onto the skillet. In a few minutes, you’ll begin to smell its fragrance as it begins to smolder.
Add a couple of wood chips whenever you want to increase the smoke scent. I often do this when I have something cooking in the oven (even at a lower temperature).
Smoke in Our Hair (Ofelia Zepeda)
The scent of burning wood holds
the strongest memory.
Mesquite, cedar, piñon, juniper,
all are distinct.
Mesquite is dry desert air and mild winter.
Cedar and piñon are colder places.
Winter air in our hair is pulled away,
and scent of smoke settles in its place.
We walk around the rest of the day
with the aroma resting on our shoulders.
The sweet smell holds the strongest memory.
We stand around the fire.
The sound of the crackle of wood and spark
Smoke, like memories, permeates our hair,
our clothing, our layers of skin.
The smoke travels deep
to the seat of memory.
We walk away from the fire;
no matter how far we walk,
we carry this scent with us.
New York City, France, Germany—
we catch the scent of burning wood;
we are brought home.