On fire, fuel, and food

Let’s talk about fire. I am one month into the charcoal cooking life with my handy little brazier. The brazier is a round metal contraption that has a solid layer on the bottom to collect ashes that fall, and then a second level that has some small holes in it, with a cylinder wall around that also has holes in it. It has a thin handle that swings up over or can swing down to rest on the side. You put charcoal in the top part and start a fire on it and then once the flames die you can swing the whole thing back and forth in the air to fan the coals and get it hotter. 

At first I was just getting coals from my host family to light my brazier, which is much faster and easier. There’s a bit of a language barrier, but it seems like my host family is not into using charcoal themselves because they think only people in towns use it, whereas they are rural village folk who just use firewood. Specifically they will have three massive logs burning, with pots often resting on bricks alternating between the logs. Brazier users and firewood users I’ve seen in Zambia often start the fires first thing in the morning and then keep them burning alllll day, heating things as needed.

To be honest, brazier life has been a big adjustment. First of all, building fires to light it was not a skill I came with. Here’s my relationship with brazier starting as a playlist progression/montage soundtrack: 

Part one: Light My Fire (thanks host fam. The Doors)

Part two: We Didn’t Start the Fire (Billy Joel)

Part three: Candle in the Wind (Elton John)

Part four: Girl on Fire (Alicia Keys)

Part four was basically the day I was determined to get my own fire going, and sleepily forgot to empty out some of the ashes in the bottom, and the cold season winds conspired against me. Large flames, me stomping on piles of ashes all over my cikuta (cooking gazebo). I was pretty certain I was gonna burn it down. The best moment was when my host sister came over after I’d gotten things under control but before I’d cleaned up the debris and congratulated me on finally figuring out how to light my own brazier. I played it pretty cool.

Anyway, so I can start my own brazier now, but it feels like such a commitment to get the thing fired up. Often it takes at least half an hour until it is going at full heat, and then it’s difficult to get it going without enough coals in there that it will burn for…a while. (Of course I’ve learned all these things the hard way, with pots of half cooked beans and wasted coals.)

What I realized is that stoves and fuel are just one piece of an interlocking food system puzzle. In other words, fire tools are embedded in a pattern of work day and household structure. In this case, people are often cooking for many and also working close to home and/or have at least one person (ie woman) who is designated to tend the fire and food all day. So as much as I want to be integrated and live like a Zambian, I don’t have quite the same context. The shape of my workday is different and I’m only ever cooking for one. What I’ve worked out so far is I will fire up my brazier first thing in the morning and make one meal that I will eat three times in the day. Occasionally I get fed up with cooking and take a day off and eat PB+J (sometimes really just pb+j, no bread) or sauerkraut (yeah…) and guavas all day.

Yesterday was excting because I ate a can of tuna for dinner, and said can has now been punched with a bunch of holes so as to be fashioned into an alcohol-burning quick stove. So, if I ever want to just make scrambled eggs or oatmeal and coffee in the morning I am good to go. Hopefully it works.

Meanwhile, one of the desired projects that my host family has mentioned to me is a biodigester. Not knowing much about them, initially I was pretty skeptical. But I read in a book Peace corps gave me that there are household scale ones that work if you have a dozen or two dozen cows, like my family. This part of the country has the most livestock. And it turns out there is a company in the province that installs them. The host family of another volunteer in the province actually got one and I had a change to go visit them. It is not cheap, but basically about the price of a full grown cow. And they can also be incorporated into cooking systems for dairy, which would be rad because lack of electricity for cooling is a big barrier right now for the dairy scene in the community. 

As long as the biodigester is maintained, you pretty much don’t have to use firewood ever again. Which is pretty mindblowing when I think about it. There’s a lot I like about this idea– you still get a slurry you can use as a  fertilizer and healthwise it would be cool if we all weren’t inhaling smoke. 

Environmentally it seems like a win to be saving the trees. Fun fact about charcoal: I learned from my district forestry officer, after I bought enough charcoal for  months, mind you, that exactly zero people in my district (think county) have charcoal permits. So assuming they are not just using found wood for it, all the charcoal in the district is illegally made and people could technically end up in prison for multiple years for it. Mostly it’s because people haven’t bothered to go to the forestry office and pay for permits, which is an amount it’d be challenging for people to get together up front. But also, in the chiefdom that I am in the chief has actually put out a decree forbidding the forestry department from issuing permits. I think the idea is to curb deforestation… Although the effectiveness of this policy approach is questionable at best when there are a number of barriers to enforcing it.

What I’m curious about though is how such a change in stove technology from wood fire to biogas stoves would interact with other aspects of food preparation and people’s lives. People have probably had a pretty consistent cooking heating thing going for thousands of years. If biogas comes in will it change what or how people cook? Or will people carry over wood fire techniques in ways that don’t “make sense” with gas? Will it actually change the amount of time or energy that goes into cooking, or will people spend the same amount but just be able to do more with it?

 It’s tempting some times to say “this more efficient technology will make things so much easier for women!” But read the book “More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave” by Ruth Cowan. She shows how historically such tools make it possible for women to have more elaborate outputs, but essentially they do nothing to change the cultural expectation of how much labor is spent on domestic tasks. 

Hopefully I will get to see this transition play out for my family. In the mean time, I am not letting my currently being limited to brazier cooking keep me from expecting elaborate food from myself occasionally. I decided that there’s no better time to start experimenting with sourdough starters than right now. You can buy bread here, but not crust or sourdough. Here’s some spicy sweet potato soup along with a crunchy little loaf. 

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