Many families will be gathering and cutting wood for the fireplace, a practice that has been followed for over two centuries in Acadiana. Others, who still use wood burning stoves or fireplaces, will buy their wood from vendors.
I can still remember grandmother’s fireplace as if it were yesterday. The primary use of the family fireplace was for heating, but I also remember the food that was cooked in it. No one can duplicate the cornbread that she cooked. I do not know if it was the crackling crumbs she put in the dough, the hog lard she used, or the iron skillet; but that dark brown crust was simply delicious in a bowl of milk and a spoonful of cane syrup.
In order to cook food, the fireplace had a metal attachment on its side on which a pot could be easily secured. It could swivel in and out of the fireplace. Some food, such as Irish and sweet potatoes, was actually placed inside the hot embers. In order to prevent burning, grandmother would wrap the potatoes in heavy aluminum material or in small covered iron pots.
In France the fireplace is called cheminee or atre. I have never heard anyone in Cajun country call it by those names. Cheminee is our word for part of the fireplace, the chimney. Elders that I knew in Acadiana pronounced their fireplace a fwa-yea but my expert in the language, David Lanclos, tells me that it is spelled foyer and it means hearth.
According to David, the word foyer is synonymous with home or family and perhaps that is why it is used in Louisiana. The fireplace kept the family warm, their food was cooked there, and it provided a great place for them to gather around.
Fireplaces were one of the earliest ways for humans to keep warm and cook food. The original ones were usually nothing more than small outdoor fire pits in the ground. Later, during inclement weather, these pits were constructed in the center of a dwelling. There were no chimneys, but small openings in the roof allowed smoke to escape. A later invention, the chimney, allowed the smoke to be vented outside and at the same time prevented rain and cold winds from entering the hut.
American statesman and inventor, Ben Franklin, greatly improved the efficiency of fireplaces and wood stoves. Since wood was so plentiful and inexpensive, they became very popular in American homes.
Many homeowners who want the ambiance of a fireplace without the problems associated with wood, have converted their fireplace to different forms of energy. Common alternatives are usually gas, propane, or electricity.
For some home owners the only part of the fireplace still used is the mantel, which is used for putting clocks and pictures. Many homes no longer have fireplaces, but want the friendliness that the fwa-yea provided for the entire family, so they have built or bought fake ones.
I visited a family recently where the fireplace was a large computer monitor and the fire was an electronic screen saver. I wonder what grandmother would have thought of that. And how would she have cooked her cornbread on those cold flames?
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