Essay One: The Hay Box


by Maxine Rogers

The first time I ever heard of a Hay Box I was in the field with my Army Reserve medical unit, 11 Med of Victoria.  We had pleased the Gods and were to be served a hot meal under the dripping trees of Albert Head.  

Any sort of a meal would have done.  To be frank, 11 Med was not the best organized clown show in town.  We rarely got fed.  I eventually gave up on them and brought my own rations on exercise.  Once, after 48 exhausting hours in the cold of midwinter, I hauled out a bagel that was stuffed full of sliced roast beef and mustard.  This raised an anguished cry from our acting Sub-Lieutenant,” Why does she has a Hamburger!” I explained to him that if he wanted to eat on exercise, he should pack his own food.  

The Hay Boxes mentioned above were insulated hampers with metal containers of hot boiled potatoes and some sort of meat.  It was not too bad and it was very hot.  I asked around but no one knew why they were called Hay Boxes.

Many years later, I read John Michael Greer’s interesting book, Green Wizardry.  This book is available from the Vancouver Regional Library and I recommend you check it out.  It is full of what Greer calls, “Appropriate Technology.”  That is what this series of essays will be about.

The Hay Box was one of the first projects I tried as a Green Wizard.  I keep sheep and have heaps of wool so instead of the traditional hay, I filled a cardboard box with some wool and filled an old pillow case with wool and I had my Hay Box.  

Hay Boxes were once very popular in Canada and the States.  They were insulated boxes sometimes with cooking pots that fit in specially-shaped insulated spaces in the Hay Box.  You could either cook a meal and put it in the Hay Box to stay warm, or even more clever, you could bring a pot of rice or potatoes to the boil and then put it in the Hay Box to finish cooking.

The first time I used my Hay Box, I boiled up a large pot of beans one evening and snuggled it down into the wool and pressed the pillow down on top of it.  I slid the hay box under the coffee table where it lives out of the way.  The next morning, I slid the box back out, removed the pillow and grabbed the handles and promptly burned my hands.  It was that hot!  The beans were perfectly cooked and very tender.  

Some people like to eat porridge for breakfast and this is a great dish to cook in a Hay Box.  All one has to do is bring the porridge to a boil last thing at night and put it in the Hay Box.  In the morning, breakfast is cooked and ready to eat.  This has the additional advantage of not scorching the porridge on the pan so the pan is very easy to wash.  This is a great way to cook steel-cut oats which take a long time to cook.  

A Hay Box is also a good place to put your heated milk and yogourt culture to ripen into yogourt.  I have seen a number of electrically-heated yogourt makers, but none work as well as a good Hay Box.  

I never like to have something on the stove when I have to go out so if that ever happens, I just slip the pot into the Hay Box and I don’t have to worry about anything burning or boiling over on the stove while I am out.  

Hay Boxes are really nice to use when one has a lot of things cooking at once, such as preparing a festival meal.  Some dishes seem to like the even, gentle heat of a Hay Box more than being boiled on the stove.  Rice, potatoes, beans and meat stews all seem to work out better in a Hay Box than on the stove top.  

Hay Boxes are still very popular in low-income countries.  I saw my first real Hay Box in Southern Africa.  Fuel is not something we worry about much in Canada, (at the moment), but it is a great expense in many other countries.  A Hay Box means people can cook for for a long time but only pay for a short time using fuel.  This may become more of an issue in Canada as the cost of all sorts of fuel and electricity seems set to go up around the world.  This will cause prices to rise here too.  

Hay Boxes can be a specially-built, nice wooden box, an old cardboard box or an insulated picnic chest.  They can be stuffed with hay, wool, an old feather pillow or even rags if you have nothing better.  If you try this idea, I am sure you will like it and it will save you money as well as conserving fuel.