At The Spectator, Timothy Jacobson explains the quiet elegance of burning coal in an age when it’s a dirty word. He writes:
The grandest compliment ever paid me came near the end of a small dinner party last winter from guest and friend Jeffrey who, on settling into an old wing chair as his host stoked the fire with coal, remarked: “I feel like I’ve just stepped into an Evelyn Waugh novel.” It was, he said, the coal.
About as close as anyone these days will have come to a domestic coal fire is the screen image of one in Downton Abbey or its predecessor, Upstairs Downstairs. Those television “fires” were all actually gas ones made to imitate the look of coal. In Waugh’s time in houses like that, they all would have burned the real thing. I do not live in such a house, with footmen and parlor maids to tend the fires, but I do have several fireplaces where for near thirty years now we have burned local Virginia fuels: abundant coal and oak together. A less perceptive guest than Jeffrey, on witnessing our little evening ritual once asked incredulously: “Gosh, is that coal? Can I touch it? You really burn it? Why?” I have a smart-aleck answer to the effect that I am just trying to pick up the slack and increase my carbon footprint at a time when striking a match or lighting your gas stove can be regarded with virtuous disapproval. Truth is, there are even better reasons.
One is simplicity. Coal is quiet fuel, well-behaved, seldom if ever “popping.” Never drawing attention to itself yet warming all it touches, it is rather like a good dinner guest or a well-planned but unfussy menu. Ours that Waugh evening was one such: French onion soup made the old way with slowly caramelized onions, beef broth and brandy; rare roast beef cooked and carved on the bone; roast potatoes soft inside but crisp to the fork; steamed not grilled sprouts, overcooked no doubt for foodie tastes but well-buttered and easy to eat; baked half-tomatoes also buttered, salted and peppered. One of our fireplaces is in the dining room, where there are also no electric lights. Coal and candle-wax heat and illuminate, both visible flames. A good scuttlefull at the beginning of dinner generally sees us through without troublesome poking and re-stoking. Accompanied but undistracted, we take our time at our common meal. May I carve you a second slice?
Another reason is functional. Coal burns hotter but slower than oak and because just a small amount of it is sufficient to sustaining a fine small fire, it also slows down the burning of the wood. This fact reflects directly on the amount of physical effort necessary to build and feed open fires. Oak must be harvested with saw or ax and then split. Of course, it can be bought by the cord or half-cord. But for the small, non-roaring fires I prefer, hardwood must almost always be processed further into smaller chunks. A maul is the tool of choice here, and it is work.
With coal, the heavy lifting is frontloaded onto the professionals — miners — leaving just the final carry to the consumer. My coal supply comes from a family firm long in the fuels and building-supply businesses, with Dickensian offices on a working railway siding. They will deliver it by truck, loose by the ton, though my modest needs are met with sacks: thick paper ones holding about fifty pounds and secured with twists of copper wire. Amazingly, it is still cheap at $5 or so a sack. Five or six sacks see me through a season and usually then some. When buying, you must specify “soft bituminous,” never anthracite, the hard, pebbly stuff that burns nicely in a furnace with a forced flue but will just sit there defiantly in an open fireplace, essentially fireproof. Moreover, here in western Virginia and across the southern Appalachians, soft coal is a valued export, shipped east by the 150-car trainload. Happily, enough is held back to service eccentric customers like me, and simply poor ones who live back in the coves and hollows, often off-grid and with no other source of heat.
Read more here.
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