Playing With Fire

Duck breast, cast-iron grilled over charcoal lumpwood

It’s a cliché, I know, that men revert to their inner neanderthal when it comes to cooking outside. Man love fire. Man build fire. Man cook meat on fire. But it’s not a cliché I’ve ever tried to fight. Quite the opposite, I’ve embraced it, having created three fiery cooking zones in my garden. Well, I call them cooking zones, but what they also represent are the three places I can hide from social interaction when family or guests come to visit. I have created, literally, a series of smokescreens, thereby avoiding small talk and, ugh, emoting. The first of these zones, standing nearest the house, is occupied by “The Napoleon”, emperor of barbecue grills, a hulk of silver metal with the muscular heft of a Range Rover. The Napoleon cooks with propane or charcoal, can spit roast several chickens simultaneously, has an infrared grill for intense searing and, if it chose to, could probably conquer half of Europe before turning forty. One time a friend came over for dinner, turned to me and said, “Wait, you have a Napoleon? Niiice.” It was one of the happiest days of my life. And that this friend is a police chief just added to my thrill. I mean, cops really know how to grill, right?

Cooking zone #2 is my garage. I don’t keep a car in there, nothing so gauche, it’s where I keep my smoker, the Weber Smoky Mountain, which looks like an enormous black bullet. From within its smoldering depths, after a mere twelve hours or so, I can whip out the perfect pulled pork, a melting mass of porcine deliciousness kissed by the smokes of two parts oak to one part hickory. (Yes, I’ve devised my own wood ratio—bespoke smoke!)

Zone #3 is my firepit, a cast-iron ring of fire. I bought a vast grate to fit over the firepit because sometimes a man just wants to cook a tomahawk steak over whole logs of applewood that he purchased from the local orchard. I once had the best cook I know come to dinner and grilled for him a fat ribeye steak over a crackling bed of fruitwood. When he took his first bite of fire-licked meat, the best cook I know turned to me with tears in his eyes (which I swear had nothing to do with the smoke billowing over us) and said it was the best steak he’d ever eaten. These are the days you live for.

Therefore cooking over wood has become my favorite party piece. According to Nathan Myhrvold, a one-time Microsoft executive who now devotes himself to the science of cooking, wood smoke contains more than a thousand flavour-producing compounds, such as creosol, which is what makes your Scotch taste peaty, and vanillin, the primary component of vanilla beans, which brings sweetness to the smoke party. But according to Myhrvold, by the time wood becomes charcoal, 99 percent of those compounds are lost.

Ribeye grilled over applewood

However, you don’t have to invest in a firepit and logs. Possibly the easiest way to enjoy this primal cooking technique is with a regular barbecue grill. Buy a bag of fist-sized chunks of wood, light them, wait for the flames to die down and then cook. The easiest way to get your fire going is with a chimney starter, a metal tube with a handle, a cheap piece of equipment that’s definitely one of the greatest tools a grill-man can own. (If you insist on using traditional charcoal, a chimney starter will get it grey-tipped and sear-ready in mere minutes.)

But does the male obsession with grilling come down to shiny equipment, flavour compounds, meat-love, ego and showing off? Or is there an easier explanation? Is it simply a matter of—fire!

Numerous studies have strongly suggested that pyromania is overwhelmingly a male problem—and this will come as little surprise to women who’ve observed a man and his fireplace, his grill, his wood-burning stove, his campfire. Perhaps these are the healthiest ways for men to express their innate fascination with fire-lighting.

Tomahawk steak grilled over applewood

However, while for many men cooking with fire might be a thrilling affair derived from an inner inflaming urge, a process carrying a faintly ridiculous air of manliness, there’s something else going on. For a start, cooking with fire is time consuming. And while many men do enjoy spending that time alone, avoiding all that small talk and, ugh, emoting, the extra hours lavished on a perfectly charred piece of meat allow a man to speak volumes without having to say a word. When guests sit at my table, I feel as if I’m saying to them: “Please enjoy the fruits of my labour. And now let’s all just agree that I don’t need to say that I love you out loud.”

That’s not a tear in my eye, it’s the woodsmoke.


– Christopher J. Yates

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