Ready for chili by the patio fire, but waiting until it’s legal again

Published 2:59 pm Wednesday, November 8, 2023

By Felder Rushing
Gardening Columnist

It’s time again for home-made chili around that patio fire, and I’m ready. When it becomes legal again, that is.

I was almost an unwitting miscreant; while planning a quiet evening of sitting around a cozy fire with family over bowls of my trophy chili, a little nagging thought gave me pause. Unlike my old self that would have just gotten down to it, the older, tad more cautious me went to the Mississippi Forestry Commission website to check on burn bans.

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Sure enough, my county is under one in which even backyard fire pits are expressly forbidden. Doesn’t matter that this old Eagle Scout knows fire safety, keeps surroundings clear, uses well- seasoned hardwood that doesn’t pop embers everywhere, and always has a water hose bucket; I  would have still been liable for a hefty fine had someone smelled their way to the scene of my transgression.

But I am ready for the minute the ban is lifted. I have a half a cord of split hardwood (mostly oak, a bit of hickory and maple) that burns steadily for a long time, gives off plenty of warmth, and smells sweetly. It has been stacked for four months, drying for more efficient heat with less smoke. I also keep a small stack of pine for faster starting and more vibrant flames; sometimes I chuck on a cedar log for its spicy aroma.

Rather than use treated fire starter sticks, I usually adhere to a simple, almost sacramental ceremony for lighting the flames by making a teepee of dry wood shavings topped with small, dried twigs and slightly larger branches. This calming ritual harks back to scout camp days of trying to use just one wooden match; pardon this little side trip, but I rarely cheat with a Bic lighter, preferring old school wood matches. Love how that pop of bright spark off a match box’s red phosphorous strip ignites the sulfur and potassium in the match head. Makes me feel as though I am holding a bit of the universe’s original Big Bang.

Anyway, I do love my evening fires; along with having a splashy little water fall nearby, I seem to be hardwired for it. In fact, I strongly suspect that one of the reasons we are so easily glued to the TV is how those flickering electronic colors tap into our thousands of years of staring at dancing flames of a warm, protective fire. I was once accused of being unable to leave a TV remote control alone because of so many years of my using a fire poker to move burning logs around…

Back to the practicalities of the fire pit. I have seen so many gardens, both home gardens and in flower shows, that include some sort of entertainment fire feature. While one friend of mine loves his patio’s gas fire feature (which is legal, even during a burn ban) and how the colorful glass beads reflect the flames, and lots of folks fuss with their little upright potbellied chiminea, most entertainment fires are simple clearings in nonflammable areas of the garden or flagstone patio, with a small circle of stones or a hardened metal bowl.

We use movable chairs to adjust our exposure to the warmth and avoid wafting smoke making my guests’ clothes and hair smell like backwoodsmen, we use a nearby small fan which also cuts down on mosquitoes.

Got my secret chili ingredients ready, now just waiting for the official go-ahead to fire up my favorite Autumn ceremony, ready to warm up while staring into the flickering past and musing about Life.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to