Lateautumn in the days I lived with my in-laws in rural Zhejiang meant the arrivalof one of the warmest companions I ever had at the dinner table — the huotong.
Imaginea wooden, thimble-shaped stool that's half-enclosed, with one side open like astage, cradling a metal receptacle built to hold burning embers, and you havean idea of what this traditional piece of dining room furniture looks like.
Wheneverthe first chilling winds of the season would sweep through the village, myin-laws would fill one with a generous helping of warm cinders from theirfire-powered wok, and place it around the table, usually right where I used tosit.
Theywere no strangers to my aversion to the cold of winter in a province thatdidn't enjoy the steam heat typical of more northern parts of China, nor theheating vents I relished at home growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, where almostevery school year saw at least a handful of snow days or times that proved toofrigid for us to attend classes. As a child, I would rush home from school inJanuary and February and immediately ensconce myself in front of the heater.
Whowould have imagined I would marry into a family accustomed to winters ofwearing multiple layers of clothing and your jacket at all times, even at home.
Notsurprisingly, my winter strategy at their home involved heavy use of anelectric mattress pad and excessive layers of blankets. I felt loathe to leavethe cocoon of warmth I had built for myself in the bedroom, including whenmealtimes arrived. For me, that made the huotong such a welcome addition aroundthe table.
It'samazing how this simple invention could generate such a substantial amount ofheat. Being perched on top of the huotong during meals transported me back tothe comfort of those weekday afternoons following school when I leaned back onvents at home to soak up every bit of warmth in the house. But even better, thehuotong, with its open design, also allowed my legs to feel just as cozy as Itucked into a delicious meal at the table.
Thehuotong appears to have had a long history among my husband's family in ruralZhejiang. My mother-in-law, once pointing to the piece with more small knicksand scratches among its lovely mahogany wood, revealed it was a familyheirloom, presented to her and my father-in-law on the occasion of theirwedding. And she proudly shared that it worked just as well, if not better,than the newer and more polished huotong they owned.
Myhusband Jun also has fond memories of the huotong, which he recalls serving asmore than just a warm seat at the table. During Chinese New Year, the familywould roast long, white sticks of niangao, or New Year cakes, over the embersin the huotong for a gooey holiday treat.
Nowthat Jun and I live in Beijing, where late autumn and winters offer the snugdelights of plentiful steam heating at our home, years have passed since welast sat on a huotong. But I will always cherish those days when I first cameto know this distinctive piece of furniture. It stands as a unique example ofthe many ingenious inventions people in south of the Yangtze River havedeveloped to survive and thrive during the coldest months of the year.