As winter of 2020 approached, I assumed my social life was about to be over for a while. I live in a city where it gets cold, and at a certain point, the heat lamps fighting for their lives in bar backyards were just not going to cut it. During peak pandemic, when socializing indoors wasn’t on the table, I prepared to enter a period of hibernation.
But walking through my local parks and common spaces, I saw that I was wrong. People were very much still out and about, emphasis on out. Their solution to that pesky matter of winter? Sleek brushed-metal stoves with flames shooting out of the top, which enable you to have a portable bonfire experience just about anywhere. The convenience of Solo Stoves and their counterparts has changed many people’s relationship to the outside world — and to cooking outdoors, too.
Solo introduced its first fire pit in 2016, but in 2020 it became the “must-have pandemic item,” writes Patrick Sauer for Fast Company, noting its relative smokelessness and ease of cleanup as well as the cultural associations of gathering around a hot fire. Solo’s sales reportedly grew 235 percent from 2019 to 2020, and the portable fire pit industry as a whole saw a huge boom around the same time.
The pandemic-era draw was obvious: Portable fire pits allowed people to hang out in the relatively safe outdoors, even as temperatures dropped. Where there’s fire, of course, there’s food (that’s a saying, right?). Though people may not have initially purchased their outdoor stoves for the purpose of cooking, many found themselves doing it anyway.
Sara McHenry, who has a propane fire pit in her apartment’s backyard, says while she and her partner bought it mostly to hang out and drink with friends, they have ventured into some cozy culinary experiments. “We did s’mores once, and a couple of times we’ve done a riff on Joe Pera’s Warm Apple Night: foil packets with sliced apples, cinnamon, brown sugar, and butter,” she says.
James Leask and his wife, who were gifted a Solo Stove by his in-laws, says they use it to cook s’mores, hot dogs, and bannock while camping. “Our friends and next-door neighbors got the cooking grate attachment and use it for warmth and more involved cooking projects, and they love it for that,” he adds.
Indeed, many portable fire pit brands noticed the uptick in weenie roasts and quickly rolled out cooking accessories alongside the stoves. Solo now has cast-iron cooktops and its own roasting sticks, and recently introduced a pizza oven. Breeo also offers accessories like a griddle top and a kettle hook. Unsurprisingly, Reddit is now full of photos of people roasting corn, searing quail, and grilling kebabs on their portable outdoor stoves.
Solo founder Jon Merris said in 2020 that while he expected the stove to be popular with folks in the suburbs, “it’s been surprising to us how many new customers we’re seeing come out of New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta.” But perhaps it shouldn’t be: While many suburban backyards already boast a grill, portable stoves gave city dwellers a chance to cook and socialize over an open flame without the luxury of private outdoor space.
Whether or not they’re being used for cooking, the presence of a stove can have an effect on eating habits: McHenry notes that her family’s stove has inspired them to dine alfresco, even if it’s just for takeout. “Now, even though we can socialize indoors, we still use [our portable stove], simply because it’s romantic to sit around a fire,” she says. No arguments here. While seasoned woodsmen may appreciate the fire pits for what they bring to the wilderness, who’s to say your front yard, a city park, or that one perfect stoop isn’t an outdoors just as great?
Janna Morton is an award-winning illustrator whose colorful work focuses on themes of nature, inclusivity, overlooked beauty, grief, and joy.