Bonfire Time: Variations for Fun Fireside Evenings
By Lois Hoffman
Bonfires are relaxing and inexpensive ways to spend a pleasant evening and there are many ways to change it up.
Who doesn’t love sitting around a bonfire, sharing time with family and friends, eating some good food and sharing some laughs? If you are one of us diehard bonfire folks, you know what I am talking about and, if you haven’t been a fan, you may want to reconsider. For many of us in the Midwest, it is pretty much a way of life.
Two years ago, the Zika virus pretty much forced us to stay inside after dark and bonfires just aren’t made for the daytime. So, there were no bonfires. Last year we could go out after dark but, because of Covid, we couldn’t be with family or friends. So, there were no bonfires.
So far this year, things are opening up and Zika hasn’t reared its ugly head yet, so tis the season go get out and enjoy some old-fashioned, low-tech — uh, no-tech simple times together. Make no mistake, these aren’t just for us country folks either. With the right precautions and the proper burn pit, most city folks can also partake and enjoy.
Different Types of Fire Pits
A fire pit is exactly that: a place to have a small fire. If you look on Pinterest and other places, there are elaborate pits made from bricks, concrete blocks mortared together with permanent seating around them. Like anything else, you can be as fancy and as detailed as you want when building one. However, remember, these types of permanent fixtures are just that…permanent.
Most of us tend to lean toward the “whatever works” type of pit. Large field stones laid in a circle works great. So do old cement blocks and bricks that are broken or chipped and are not good for any other purpose. I even have an old tree stump from a fallen tree last year that we pile small branches and pieces of wood on top and burn. We have our fire and are also burning out the stump at the same time. If you have a small space, don’t overlook the portable fire rings sold in stores. They have pre-fab covers and they can be set up anywhere and transported.
What is the draw of the firepit? Bonfires are spur-of-the-moment entertainment — or at least the best ones are. When we started having them, we would plan a week ahead of time, not only the night and time, but also the food we were going to have and every other detail. We also always had a large group of people. There’s nothing wrong with doing it this way, but we since have learned that spontaneous ones with just a few friends are the best.
If it is a nice night and we get our work done, we invite a few friends and throw something together quick like hotdogs on the grill or cook something in a cast iron pot over the fire like hotdogs in a pot of beans. We find that having a smaller group makes it easier to visit with everyone and it’s much more low key.
This is how we spend many spring, summer and fall evenings. Though we never tire of having a bonfire, when we do it so often, it can start to feel sort of routine. So, we have found some ways of changing it up a bit with some of these variations.
Ice Cream Freeze-Off
Even though food is pretty much whatever you end up with, sometimes it is fun to center the evening around the food itself. You have heard of chili cookoffs, well we have ice cream freeze-offs. It all started because our family always made our version of homemade ice cream, the Hoffman ice cream. Then there is the Brueck version (my Mom’s family) which uses a different recipe altogether. So, we would make both kinds and everyone would have to taste both (what an awful chore!) and then vote on which they liked best. All in fun of course, there were never really any losers but it made for an interesting evening with lots of ice cream!
Garbage Can Stew
This is exactly the opposite of the ice cream freeze-off. Instead of using certain recipes, there is absolutely no structure to this game plan. We would start with a large, a very large pot, and put some beef and some stock into it. Everyone that came would be asked to bring one thing to add to it. We would usually end up with different vegetables, sometimes other kinds of meat, almost anything goes. We would let it all cook together and the result was supper. It usually was pretty good and was never the same twice.
We always used to have a Halloween bonfire and decorate to the hilt for it, ghosts and goblins and all. Of course, there were always a fair share of ghost stories to accompany the eerie night. We took a lesson from this and, even though we love spontaneity, sometimes building a night around a certain theme was a nice diversion, especially when we were with the same group of people for a few weeks in a row.
We would have nights where anyone who played guitar, harmonica, or any instrument would bring it and make it a musical sing-along night. Before the night was over, a lot of old tunes would be played and with those came many an old memory.
Other nights we would pick a year such as “when you were ten” and each person would tell a tale of something they remembered when they were that age. This was only a starting point. Before the night was over, one story would lead to another and another and so on until it became nostalgia night and some old family tales were told. This is especially fun when most everyone there grew up together.
Some nights are more melancholy than others. Just being outside under a twinkling night sky can be magical in itself. Listening to some oldies and enjoying the magic of the night sky can make for a relaxing evening. We actually moved our fire pit farther out from the mercury lights so we could enjoy the vastness of the night.
Sometimes everyone seemed to be busy. That’s certainly not a reason to forego the fire. We have found that enjoying the fire with just each other can make for a special evening. Sometimes in our busy world we just don’t take the time to talk and share time with those who are special to us. This works great for couples, but it can also be special for grandparents with their grandchildren, or even one on one with a certain grandchild or special friend.
Bonfires are one of the easiest ways to enjoy some quality time with special people without making a big fuss or to-do. It also gets you out of the house and away from electronics for a few hours while soaking up the evening air. There’s a simple magic about gathering around a fire that nothing else compares to and the best part is that anyone almost anywhere can enjoy this magic.
Lois Hoffman is a freelance writer and photographer covering rural living with more than 20 years of experience, contributing to Successful Farming, Country, and Farm & Ranch Living. She lives on a 37-acre hobby farm in Michigan. Read all of Lois’ GRIT posts here.
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