Cooking with Fire

Technology to nurture the caveperson within.

| July/August 2008

Meat on the grill Puccio

When the weather turns warm and Independence Day is just around the corner, my thoughts turn to an afternoon tending a pork picnic shoulder in the smoker or a quiet evening with a pair of elk loins on the grill. The caveman in me has prepared well for this season by collecting and drying past years’ windfall branches and trimmings. My favorite wood for cooking (and flavoring) is cherry, but apple and maple follow close behind. The modernist in me has prepared by stocking up on chunk charcoal, a chimney lighter and a pile of newspaper to fire it.

My dad and the hot dog turned me on to the joys of cooking with fire. He and I had gone for a midwinter hike on the Missouri River bottoms near Bismarck, North Dakota. When my not-quite-5-year-old stomach began to growl, we stopped, he built a fire fueled with bur oak sticks, and a small feast appeared from deep within the pockets of his parka. I don’t think I have ever tasted such delicious fare – fire-roasted hotdogs and hot chocolate, in winter, in the middle of nowhere, with my dad.

Grilling was a summer tradition in our house, and lighting the coals was an assignment I earned during my last year of junior high. We didn’t use lighter fluid so I learned to get the charcoal going with a small wood fire.

Our first cooker was a 1960s charcoal pan with a removable wind hood. When that grill could no longer be welded back together, we graduated to a cast-iron tabletop Hibachi. I liked the Hibachi because the cooking surfaces could be placed at several different levels, which afforded some heat control. It was also small enough that when the charcoal briquette supply fell short,
I could make sufficient coals by burning down a small pile of sticks.

Fire-cooking technology has come a long way since those days. Weber introduced the kettle and mainstreamed the concept of indirect cooking, barbecue-house-sized smoker/grills were downsized to fit on trailers, trailer-sized smoker/grills were downsized to fit on patios, and gas grills took the country by storm. Today, the fire cook faces a staggering number of appliances, all sure to help create the best smoked brisket or choicest grilled hotdog. Some are perfectly suited to fast-paced urban and suburban lifestyles. With others, the making is as much of an event as the meal.

If lighting the fire to prepare your food means more than turning a knob and tossing a few wood chips into a pan, or your inner caveperson is clamoring to get out, it might be time to upgrade to the best the wood and charcoal grilling/smoking arena has to offer. I’ve included five models from five different makers here, to whet your appetite.

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