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Tending the Fire

Cooking food outdoors brings family together, whether on the grill or in a fire pit.

| July/August 2017

  • The combination of a mesmerizing flame and being outside makes outdoor cooking one of summer's great joys.
    Photo by iStock/djedzura

Whether grilling up some venison backstraps or smoking the annual Thanksgiving turkey, something about cooking outside with charcoal and fire has a very visceral appeal to me. And I know I’m not alone — grilling and smoking meats routinely surveys near the top of our article topic survey anytime there is an article about it in the mix.

Some of my favorite outdoor cooking memories from when I was a youngster center around our outdoor fire pit, which was right next to our machinery pole barn and about 100 yards from the farmhouse. It occurs to me now that it was the perfect distance from the house, just far enough from the comforts of the indoors that all members of the family would grab a lawn chair and gather around the fire.

Hot dogs, my mom’s special baked beans, maybe even corn on the cob were the norm, and roasted marshmallows without a doubt to follow. I still remember vividly when my dad mistakenly threw a hedge — or “Osage orange,” as some may know it — into the cookout mix, and an ember popped off the fire and lit on my brother Josh’s eyelid. Dad felt awful for the mistake.

Years later, when I was an upperclassman in high school and it was often just Dad and me at home for dinner, we’d throw sliced potatoes, chopped bacon, and a number of different things into a cast-iron pot and cook it over the fire pit. That fire pit was located much closer to the house, but it still didn’t deter us from sitting there beside it, cooking whatever victuals we were working with and usually paying closer attention to the burning flames. More than once, we choked down an overcooked dinner because we got caught up in watching the fire.

Although I was probably too big of a knucklehead at 18 to admit it, we both liked the fire pit dinners, especially because we could be outside longer, and it gave us time together around the fire. I know there were rare occasions when Dad wouldn’t even eat the potato mixture because of his Atkins diet plan, but the fire pit potato dinners continued. And if we nailed it just right, and the smell got to him, he’d dig in anyway — just one reason that diet plan never did really succeed for the man.

Nowadays, even during the winter, anytime I have a choice, I love to let the smoke roll out of my simple Weber charcoal grill or my charcoal-burning smoker. In recent years, it’s even become tradition to smoke a turkey Thanksgiving morning. My brother and I usually get up around 3 or 4 in the morning to get the smoker going and get the bird started, and then our wives graciously feed the smoker while we go on a morning deer hunt. The bird usually finishes up around midafternoon, and for at least one year in a row, it’s been phenomenal. (We might be sitting on a larger streak, but two years ago my sister-in-law forgot to remove the little plastic giblet bag from the bird.) Over the years, I think we’ve ironed out the kinks on a method that produces some of the best-tasting turkey I’ve ever had. 

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