Everybody who owns a fireplace faces the challenge of keeping it fed. Unable or unwilling to buy a truck, chain saw and a few wooded acres up north, I opted for the easy way out and bought my firewood.

I looked through the classified ads in the paper and started comparing prices. That's where the trouble began. The one I initially circled promised a cord of wood for $85, delivered. What could be simpler? But with my finger poised about the telephone buttons, my eye caught the ad below: "$100 per cord. All oak."

Oh. Some of them tell you what kind of wood. I re-read the ads. Some offered mixed hardwoods, some oak, some just plain old wood. And then I noticed that one or two advertised a "full cord."

Now what could that mean? If a cord was a cord, what was a "full cord?" To complicate matters even further, several of the ads specified that the wood was "seasoned." Did that mean that the other wood was raw? Or was it just naive?

The more I thought about this, the more the ordeal became like buying a good bottle of wine. Sure, that vineyard produces a splendid Chardonnay, but was that a good year?

I decided to put my firewood purchase aside for the moment until I discussed the matter with my neighbor. He really knows his wines.

"First of all," he advised after giving my questions due consideration, "you don't want mixed hardwoods. That means junk."

"I want oak, right?"

"Oak's better," he said, "but it doesn't give off the BTUs that apple does."

"Apple? BTUs? Are we talking firewood here?"

Nonchalantly: "Sure. All of the fruitwoods burn hotter. Apple, cherry. Everybody knows that. Now, how wide is your fireplace?"

I shrugged. To me a fireplace is about as wide as a log.

"Well," my friend said, "that's important. Most wood runs 20 to 24 inches, but if your fireplace is wider, you can get a better deal on longer wood. Just make sure it's seasoned."


He stared at me. "The color, naturally."

"Naturally. Just what, uh, color is seasoned wood?"

"Seasoned oak," he corrected. He contemplated the question, leaning back in his chair and forming a steeple with his fingertips. "As long as you're somewhere between burnt umber and raw sienna, I think you're safe."

I scratched my head, recalling the occasion when the very same friend had tried to educate my peasant's palate with some advice about judging the worth of a wine by its bouquet. After several lessons, he had diplomatically suggested that I must have sinus problems.

"How do I know if I'm getting a full cord?" I asked, trying to return to a subject I could understand.

"Now that's complicated," he said. "Depends on how the wood was split and stacked. There are different formulas you I thought about bricking over the opening of the fireplace. Now I was going to have to subscribe to Consumer Reports just to be informed enough to be able to set fire to pieces of wood. can use to calculate the volume of wood versus air in a stack. You really ought to read up on this."

I thought about bricking over the opening of the fireplace. Now I was going to have to subscribe to Consumer Reports just to be informed enough to be able to set fire to pieces of wood.

Why didn't Garfinckel's sell firewood? When you go there and ask for a salad spinner, a salad spinner is what you get. You don't have to specify what type of plastic you want the thing to be made from.

But the family missed the romance of a flickering fire in the living room, so I was forced into the impetuous act of ordering a cord of oak without having read up on it.

I was relieved to see that the person who delivered the wood was an honest man. I could tell because he was wearing a red checkered flannel shirt. Nonetheless, as he dumped the wood in my driveway, I studied the color of the logs.

Every one of them seemed different, ranging from pink to yellow to gray. One or two pieces had a little umber in them, I thought.

I kicked the logs judiciously, testing to see if they were seasoned. I had picked up this technique on used-car lots, where I regularly pummelled away at car tires to make sure the engine was sound. Idly, I wondered if I should race a hunk of the stuff into the house and hold it over the stove to see if it would catch fire.

In my pockets were a tape measure -- to measure my full cord -- and a tree identification book, for how else was I to know the guy wasn't selling me his old magnolia tree? But that red flannel shirt intimidated me.

I did have the savvy to pay by check, however, and I invited my neighbor over that evening to survey my wood pile, in plenty of time to stop payment on the check should he decide that my cord was less than full.

To my great relief, he estimated the volume to be "near enough, though you can never really tell." And the wood itself he pronounced oak, though "a pretty scrawny old oak."

That didn't bother me. An old oak would be a seasoned oak, right?

As we sat before a raging fire, I felt the satisfaction of a host who has been complimented on his judicious choice of dinner wine.

"You know," my friend mused as we watched the flames turn my new purchase to ashes, "what you really oughta have in here is a wood-burning stove."