We arrived first, around 6:00 pm. Nancy’s drive was long and dark under the veiled night sky. The house, once entirely out in the open, was now fully concealed by trees and shrubs that Nancy had painstakingly planted and cared for over the last 26 years. The inside of the house smelled wonderful as dinner was nearly ready. We unpacked our things and came down for a quick tour of the original house. I marveled at the near perfect condition of both masonry heaters, now 26 years old. In fact, part of our meal that evening had come from the bake oven in the kitchen. Matt Helike, the fourth mason, had not arrived when the three of us and Nancy squeezed in around the table. Nancy remarked about the cramped nature of our seating, and how it was this reality that had spurred her into adding a dining room addition. The closeness was quite familial and soothing for me having just left my two children and wife to care for our newly blanketed homefront back in Maine. Nancy’s experience as a mother of three and an accomplished cook was clear at my first taste of her hearth roasted carrots. The heater that had helped gift us with this finely cooked fare bathed us in its warmth. And it was at that moment I became clear why we were there to build not the second, but the third masonry heater under the same roof. For 26 years the kitchen masonry heater, just feet away from table, blessed diners with its abundant warmth and perfectly cooked. To now conceive of a larger dining space without the same warm identity, only an arm’s length away, was futile at best. Nancy told us that for the first ten years she and her family lived there, she didn’t have a conventional oven. Every item that required baking was baked in the masonry oven, either in live coals or on the clean hearth. By the quality of our meal it was clear that Nancy’s passion for hearth cooking had only grown since those early years of necessity.
We began our 16 day odyssey into long distance heater construction on Tuesday morning. Our goal was simple: build the best possible masonry heater in the shortest amount of time and come home reasonably healthy. We worked twelve to fourteen hours most days with breaks at lunch and dinner. Nancy fed us nearly every meal and did it with style and maternal doting that would make any recent college departee jealous to the core. Even with the grueling schedule I think we all came home a few pounds heavier.
During the course of the project we developed a great relationship with the local General contractor on the project, Sid Bebbe. I can’t tell you how much more productive a work environment can be when all systems are go between all the contractors on site. Sid’s cooperation with us was paramount to our success. The heater began slow with the first day spent conforming to New York state’s fire code which mandates that all combustion air be brought directly into the firebox of the appliance in question. We built an elaborate ash/air shared chamber system. Outside cold air piped directly into the masonry heater foundation, where it then passes through the ash dump hole in the support slab and then is diverted below the ashdoor around, up and under the firebox grate. A custom sliding guillotine damper mounted within allows complete control over airflow into the system below the firebox.
The days to follow were filled with laughter and frustration as we often toiled to find our rhythm amongst the stone shelves, and repeating arches. Nancy made frequent inspection visits to our plastic tent palace often bringing cookies or other treats recently pulled from the kitchen masonry heater. Having eaten many different foods baked or cooked in wood-fired ovens, I can honestly say that sweets rank highest on my list of favorites from the wood oven. I have always found great satisfaction in being conscious of the method of preparation that food goes through before reaching my taste buds. Food is born from a wood fired oven is undeniably the best.
We finished the Heater on a brilliant Long Island morning. A rare powdery snow had marked the finish of the project in the very same fashion that I had begun with in Maine two and half weeks earlier. Nancy baked us a final batch of delectable coconut chocolate chip cookies in the masonry oven. Between adding the final items to our truck and the bittersweet door pause that precedes leaving clients turned friends, we missed our scheduled ferry. An hour later, with promises of summertime visits and heartfelt goodbyes we managed to make our way back to Orient Point where our water chariot awaited.