We Got Wood

I have to say that the weekend’s drive over the Blue Ridge Mountains was spectacular. It rained quite a bit on the way home, but on the way out the endless vistas of tree-covered mountains rolling off into the distance like waves, well they were awe-inspiring. Being a history buff (in Virginia no less) I couldn’t help but be reminded of the awe the settlers experienced as they gazed across the same hazy green scenery.

People wonder why it is that we colonials have always been such prodigious home bakers. Indeed, compared to the English of the Colonial and Industrial periods, the average American did far more baking and came up with far more home-baking recipes. One reason is that we’re just great experimenters. Another is that living apart from civilization, colonists had to do for themselves, getting creative with whatever odd ingredients they may have had. Yet perhaps the biggest reason is the sheer abundance of cooking fuel we had at our disposal.

England, you see, had been heavily deforested by the time the first colonists arrived. The prodigious fuel needs of ship builders, cannon makers, iron workers, brick makers and glass workers had long since depleted England’s forests. Charcoal was the thing, you see. It burns far cleaner and hotter than wood, yet is made from wood (or bone), by heating it in a low-oxygen atmosphere (usually under a big pile of turf or clay). It’s fabulous fuel, yet it takes about four tons of wood to make a ton of charcoal, and then about four tons of charcoal to smelt a ton of iron. Add it all up and it’s easy to see why England’s (not to mention many of Europe’s) forests were virtually eliminated by 1600.

Luckily, coke was invented about that time. Coke is a fuel derived from coal, made via a method that’s strikingly similar to the way charcoal is made from wood. Why do you need coke when coal burns just as hot? Because of the impurities in coal (notably sulphur) that turn into noxious gasses when coal is burned. Not only were the gasses dangerous, they tended to pollute whatever the coal fire was being applied to (whether molten metal of food). Coke was a cleaner-burning fuel by comparison, so much so that it could be used in homes and in food preparation (in fact it was first employed to roast malt at a brewery in 1642).

But then coke wasn’t always cheap either, having to be mined, processed and shipped. Which meant your average Old Worlder had to factor the cost of fuel into their weekly grocery bill. Even into the industrial era, when cast iron stoves became fairly commonplace and people could bake more at home, the cost of cooking fuel was enough to discourage many would-be bakers. So imagine how the newly arrived settlers must have felt as they stared out, open-mouthed over those endless hills of lumber. Some saw their dream houses, some their businesses and fortunes, others the mighty nation America would one day become. Still others, bakers most of them, simply looked out and said: who wants pie?

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