Cooking with Fire: A Primer and a Meditation

If cooking with fire brings up visions for you of grilling hamburgers, I forgive you. And don’t forget S’mores, the extent of my experience with fire and cooking for most of my childhood. I forgive myself for that.

It’s winter now. A wood fire burns in my fireplace, a take-off on a Count Rumford design.  There’s something primeval about the smell of smoke, isn’t there? Remembering those lazy bygone days of summer that conjure up many fire- and smoke-related food memories. I swear, there must be something to the idea of cellular memory, because the aroma of smoke or the crackle of flames as they lick the raw, fatty side of a piece of meat, well, that’s all it takes sometimes to be transported to another place.

That place usually signifies greater simplicity and innocence, an idyllic time with fewer cares and worries.

But it was not idyllic at all to cook with fire all the time, day in and day out. To truly understand just how our ancestors managed to feed themselves, it is crucial to “get” just what cooking fire really means, for in contemplating the whole concept of cooking with fire throws light on how we moderns view such an ancient practice.

Real cooking with fire takes a lot more than squirting some lighter fluid on some “charcoal” and whipping out a green-tipped match the length of a chopstick.

To start with, Theodor de Bry’s engravings dating from 1591 portray Timuca Indians of Florida as savages, smoking iguanas, snakes, and small mammals over raging fires. Andrew Warnes elaborates on the way barbecue became associated with savagery in his book, Savage Barbecue (2008), although many reviewers seem to take issue with his findings. And chefs such as Francis Mallmann of Argentina search the past for inspiration, seeking a culinary ancestry essentially lost to them because of different cooking methods and equipment. Mallmann roasts whole animals in enormous pits lined with heated stones, harking back to a pre-European Patagonian heritage, reinforcing the belief that somehow the past was ever so much better. Barbecue, but not Southern U.S. influenced. I know, as I almost choked to death on a piece of beef at a barbecue outside of Posadas, Argentina years ago.

Peppers rs 2
Roasted red peppers (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)


Early humans worshiped fire, but feared its power as well. They cherished its beauty and its utility in making food more edible and nourishing. For them, fire contained elements of magic and myth, and so epics and legends and fairy tales emerged to explain the alliance between fire and humans.
Today, in the minds of many people in the West, the idea of cooking with fire conjures up those visions, with soft flickering light emanating from a stone hearth, the door barred against wolves howling in tune with the wind, and the looming darkness of the forests, thick with wood for cooking, there for the taking, it seemed, until far-off Judgement Day.

Cooking with fire today begets romanticism, for we believe it brings us closer to the natural world, fraught as the so-called real world is with artificiality and a reality divorced from the nature we yearn for. Some writers say that cooking with fire is not unlike poetry. Building a fire, and cooking on it, represents skills that until recently just about everyone mastered early in life. A hesitant move, distracted attention, too hot a flame, and scarce food quickly burns, becoming inedible, wasted and lost. The specter of Death loomed even larger than usual when that happened. A cook who could judge the embers, sensing the readiness of the flame, and coax nourishment from it all was a valuable and essential part of society.

Smoke rs
Smoke, and fire (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)


What many people don’t understand is that serious cooking fires do not require “leaping flames” as Goldenson and Simpson make clear (p. 20 – 21). And the type of wood for the fire also merits considerable attention. Hardwoods such as apple, ash, cherry, hickory, sugar maple, and red oak work best. Soft woods – such as willow, pine, spruce, and fir – don’t work so well, not because they don’t burn – they do and ignite faster than do hardwoods, but because they burn so fast, soft woods don’t provide enough long-lasting coals and require constant attention. Another drawback to cooking with soft woods – pine, for example – is that the resins that allow them to ignite quickly also will imbue food with peculiar flavors.

And cooks needed to be sure “bank” the fire a few hours before any serious cooking could take place, giving the fire a chance to produce the much desired coals that did most of the real cooking. One interesting tidbit about fires is this: many fireplaces were so large that homeowners placed a huge “back-log” of green wood – often the size of a tree! – up against the back wall of the fireplace, to keep the intense heat of the fireplace from damaging the wall. The back-log also served to keep coals and embers going until morning so that the day’s cooking fire could be started fairly rapidly. And with all the recent talk about African slaves enjoying a holiday over Christmas, it must be said the Yule log tradition played an important role, since the tradition apparently began with the concept of the back-log. Goldenson and Simpson suggest that “The custom arose for the large plantation owners to grant a holiday from chores to their slaves as long as the back-log continued to burn during the Christmas season” (p. 28).

Thus, fire played a starring role in everyday life, over and over, becoming the diva in the opera of the quotidien. Richard Wrangham’s groundbreaking book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009) pays homage to this idea of the centrality of cooking in humanity’s evolution, suggesting that with cooking, early humans catapulted themselves beyond an existence of raw foods. Just when humans began cooking with fire remains somewhat controversial, ranging from 400,000 years ago to possibly over a million. Evidence of controlled use of fire at a South African cave site – Wonderwerk – dates to approximately 1 million years ago.  Who knows exactly when the first human put two and two together and surmised that cooked food tasted better than raw food, ever so much easier to chew, too?

Unfortunately, the only survival manual owned by early humans rested between their ears, not just because of their proverbially large brains, but due to knowledge passed down verbally in the dearth of literacy or the lack of writing all together. Deaths of wise elders, both men and women, meant a tremendous loss in this absence of writing, unless their society passed down that knowledge via stories or art. Even after the advent of writing, diaries and journals, letters and manuscript cookbooks rarely provided details about cooking with fire or anything about the role of various types of embers or coals. Legends, myths, and fairy tales featuring fire as a major character testify to the vital importance of fire to humans, providing all the more reason to look long and hard at the myths that escaped the axe of memory.

And iconic foods in many world cultures originated in the clouds of smoke used as a preservative. These foods are now revered for springing from the land and the ancient past. Virginia ham – salt-cured and cold smoked – exemplifies the methods early American settlers used to preserve the flesh of the pigs on the frontier, based on what they knew from curing meat in England, possibly York? Grimsby smoked fish is another iconic food, from the English fishing town of Grimsby. Ditto finnan haddie. Smoked fish adds vital protein and flavor to West African “sauces,” or stews eaten with various mashed tubers or other sources of carbohydrates. It is my belief that eventually smoked/salted pork replaced smoked/salted fish in the diets of Africans brought as slaves to the southern United States. A list of other iconic smoked foods would take pages to complete, but consider the following smoked foods, some of which are actually smoked over fire and others added to dishes to create a smoky essence and/or taking advantage of the Maillard Reaction. Don’t forget that Mary Randolph, author of The Virginia Housewife (1824), mentions adding browned flour to sauces for increased flavor.

The iron stove, invented in the late 1700s, helped cooks a great deal, but it was still powered by wood. Another factor behind the invention of non-wood or charcoal-burning stoves was pollution from smoke, a problem that still plagues people, not to mention the depletion of forests. Clever inventors such as Englishman James Sharp came up with a working gas stove (ca. 1826). And with those inventions, cooking with fire receded into the past, becoming more a romantic hobby rather than a daily necessity replete with danger and drudgery.

Fire, powerful and fearsome, protecting and nurturing. Fire, one of the four elements of classical thought throughout the world, the one that tipped the scales and made us human. What we cook today, what we love to eat today, still bear the marks of flame and smoke, handed down through the ages, forged in the crucible of millions of fires.

Still interested? Read more here:

Booth, Sally Smith. Hung, Strung and Potted: A History of Eating Habits in Colonial America, 1971.

Carson, Jane. Colonial Virginia Cookery, 1968.

Carter, Susannah. The Frugal Colonial Housewife, 1976 (reprint, annotated from 1772).

Crump, Nancy Carter. Hearthside Cooking: Early American Southern Cuisine Updated for Today’s Hearth & Cookstove, 2008.

Field, Rachel. Irons in the Fire: A History of Cooking Equipment, 1984.

Goldenson, Suzanne, with Doris Simpson. The Open-Hearth Cookbook: Recapturing the Flavor of Early America, 1982 (reprint 2006).

Kitchiner, Dr. William. The Cook’s Oracle, 1817. See Chapter II  for a description of the skills of roasting.

Mallmann, Francis. Mallmann on Fire, 2014.

Marcoux, Paula. Cooking with Fire, 2014.

Meyer, Leland Richard. “Fireplace Cookery” pp. 325-42, in: Henry J. Kauffman, The American Fireplace: Chimneys, Mantlepieces, Fireplaces and Accessories, 1972.

Moss, Kate and Kathryn Hoffman. The Backcountry Housewife: A Study of Eighteenth-Century Foods, 1985 (reprints 1994, 2001).

Phipps, Frances. Colonial Kitchens: Their Furnishings and Their Gardens, 1972.

Rubel, William. The Magic of Fire, 2002.

© 2016 C. Bertelsen



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