On Furnaces, Dump Bars and Comfort

It’s getting colder here in the mountains of central Maine.  October spent this weekend segueing into November, and it didn’t go easily:  Saturday morning the bruisy sky was spitting snow, and by the end of the day Sunday we had been pasted with about two inches of the sticky whiteness.  It’s far too early for this.

It's not this bad yet...but this is what I've got to look forward to...

For those of us who huddle indoors until spring, it’s far too early to begin hibernating.

Still, that’s not an entirely fair assessment of my winter mindset.  I don’t hate the winter outdoors.  I like hiking.  I like cross-country skiing (when my bindings don’t let go several miles from home).  In a sick sort of way, I even rather like show shoveling.  Part of the attraction of these things is coming home, into the warmth of the house.  So when the furnace is on the blink, which it is right now, I dread the cold.  (Fortunately there’s a small wood stove in the dining room, but it doesn’t spread its warmth all that far.)

Thus Saturday found me crawling beneath the plumbing and furnace air ducts in the cellar from hell.  Wearing my grotty old work coveralls, pockets full of wrenches and other assorted tools, my plan was change the filter on the fuel line running from the oil tank to the furnace.  The cellar itself is low, dug out and lined with granite 240 years ago when the house was originally built on this hillside.  Water runs in and through regularly to the sump pump in the corner, which spits it out again on the downhill side.  Spiders live and die here, leaving webs everywhere.  The lights my elderly friend Ray installed for my birthday several years ago are an improvement over what went before, but the corners are still shrouded in darkness.  I ended up kneeling between the oil tank and the sump pump, flashlight between my knees, water seeping into my shoes, and there I undertook to remove the oil filter:  first I had to close off the tank valve, then to convince the cranky stuck filter that it really wanted to come off (with resulting black oil and vile felt element washing over my hands before dumping into the catch pan); finally I placed the new element in the filter and replaced the entire assembly and reopened the valve.  The process is relatively simple, but made onerous by the location of the filter and the nastiness of the old oil.

Then I had to bleed the line.  I’ve got my tools for that, too:  a piece of plastic tubing, a wrench, and a catch-jar.  As you can tell, I’m the queen of do-it-yourself:  that’s what that overrated mother, necessity, will do you.  The furnace is on the other end of the cellar, and involves less crawling on the damp floor:  it’s the placement of the bleeder valve, behind the fuel line, which makes opening it with the wrench a pain.  Invariably I end up with small scrapes and cuts trying to do this job.  And I end up stinking of #2 heating oil.

Sadly, this weekend, all this was to no avail.  I had reached the end of my burner-mechanic expertise, and without the gratification of oil heat.

Sunshine on a day when we don't, obviously, have the stove going.

Thank God for small wood stoves in the dining room, I thought, watching the snow mock me.

(To top it off, after scouring myself of the cellar adventure,  I was sitting at my desk trying to figure out how to afford a call from the oil company, when  I heard the unhappy noise of the toilet overflowing.  It does this sometimes in the cold, when the refill valve in the bottom of the tank simply doesn’t shut, and the bowl, refilling, can’t quite stop itself.  The proverbial insult, on top of  my injury!  Easily taken care of, but then I had to clean up that flood.)

So I had a brainstorm.  Food.  My mother, when I was young, frequently made dump bars–and I couldn’t help but wonder, as she also often suffered through unlooked-for adventures, whether she cooked to feel better.  These bars, rich with coconut, chocolate chips, brown sugar and walnuts, could qualify as the ultimate in comfort food.

The newer version

The recipe is from Cooking Down East by Marjorie Standish, a cookbook which resides in nearly every kitchen I’ve ever entered:  I think owning one is the law in this state.  The recipe is on page 181 and is touted as “the good recipe with the inelegant name.”  Here it is, paraphrased.

Dump Bars

In top of double boiler over boiling water melt and mix:

2 sticks margarine

1 lb box brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp salt

4 eggs

Only heat and stir until margarine is melted.

Remove top of double boiler and stir in:

2 cups sifted flour

1 tsp baking powder

I cup flaked coconut [I like to add more]

1/2 cup nuts (optional) [I like walnuts, and I like to add more]

Spread in an 8 x 13 inch pan.  The recipe suggests mixing in chocolate chips, which I do at this point, since I want them to retain some of their shape, instead of melting and getting swirled all through the batter.  Marjorie Standish apparently liked 1/2 cup, so again, I add more.

Bake at 375º for 40 minutes.

(recipe © Muze Inc, 1995)

I have vague memories of eating these warm, straight out of the pan, at the kitchen counter in the evening when I was a kid.  This weekend, I baked them and ate a couple while sitting in the rocking chair beside the wood stove,.   The dump bars were warm, the wood stove was warm, and I felt the need of the comfort.

Yay for comfort food, I say.


The burner mechanic is coming this week.  The dump bars will be gone by then.


  1. Sorry about your furnace woes Anne with an E…..for some reason I thought you has TWO woodstove, but my memory resembles a seive, particularly after child #4. Thanks for the recipe dear friend, I think I will make this for the next potluck at church.


  2. Linda Berkowitz

    So sorry about your weekend. I often try things on my own only to find I just lack the needed knowledge, tools or dedication. I admire you.

    We heat our whole house with a wood stove situated in the basement. Not a quit finished basement but nice enough to sit by the stove in.

    We had gone away over night Saturday and so the house was dead cold when we got home.(no sun here on Sunday). It is amazing how everything gets completely cold and takes sooo long to warm up – almost 24 hours. Not just the surfaces but down into the core of furniture and material. By this morning, the air was warmer to breathe and now the sun is out and makes a big difference in our south facing house.


  3. Trisha Owens

    Anne, I loved this entry in your “awesome adventures” as I have, did and will be doing similar things in my nasty cellar (complete with 175 yr. old boulders for a foundation, and ga-zillion families of various spiders and rodents!) Why just yesterday I was down there with a plumber to clear out the septic lines. Yet, despite it all, I love my old house. Thanks for the great descriptive entry.


  4. Ray Little

    With a little co-operation your “elderly friend” could fix those dark corners.


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