Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But where there’s fire, there is not necessarily smoke. Smoke is where the flavor is. And the kind of woody smoke that draws praise to a grill chef requires water.
Live wood is up to 50% water by weight, most of it moving just under a tree’s bark. It carries the goodies that build this year’s growth, fight off disease and feed leaves, flowers and roots. If a tree were an animal, this thin layer would be its flesh and blood.
Freshly cut “green” wood is so wet it is virtually unburnable—so all future firewood travels along one of two paths to become suitable for the grill. Both paths reduce moisture so combustion can happen.
First we go to dry. Really dry: charcoal.
Chunk (or lump) charcoal is not just charred wood. It is the product of a highly heated chamber—a type of kiln—one that is very short of oxygen. The procedure that makes charcoal is called pyrolysis. A pyrolytic chamber can be a primitive mound of earth or a high-tech industrial monster (or a Kingsford plant, which performs the same process on pressed sawdust). When wood is put inside, the oxygen-starved heat boils away the water and accompanying elements—called volatile compounds—without allowing it to fully ignite. The result is a lump of nearly pure carbon and ash dried to 1% to 4% moisture.
Charcoal is far lighter than same-size firewood, and stable (it won’t rot) so it is very practical to store, package and transport. Outside the developed world, a significant portion of rain forest logging can be blamed on subsistence farmers making, using and selling the stuff.
When lit, charcoal produces steady heat with no visible smoke or flame, releasing only trace levels of the original wood’s volatile compounds and moisture. Charcoal was wood.
Now: whole firewood.
Under natural conditions a felled tree will dry to about 15% moisture after a year, depending on split size and climate. When ready for the grill it still contains four to 15 times the water content of charcoal. These days the process is often accelerated in a kiln, which has the added benefit of killing invasive pests like the emerald ash borer or Japanese beetle. This is called “seasoning” the wood. And it’s appropriate—this 15% moisture level is vital to grillers. It tips the balance in favor of ignition but leaves just enough of the wood’s nature to throw off our beloved seasoning smoke. Drier and it burns too fast; wetter and your soggy smoke column will attract the fire department.
In a properly seasoned wood fire, smoke is produced at the border of lit and unlit, the area that’s approaching the 482° Fahrenheit ignition point. Watch a stick burn and you can see the border clearly. The advancing combustion is the reaction of carbon and hydrogen with oxygen in the air. At 200° to 482° *, the water is being driven out by the advancing fire.
The smoke you see and smell is that water—and the minerals and organic elements that make up the character of the piece of wood—being released into the air. (Some of them sound so terrifying that they are the basis of occasional hate mails sent me by clean-air fanatics and cancerphobes, but a whiff of these chemicals from the grill is no more dangerous than breaths taken while jogging a city street.)
The key here is WATER as much as fire. You need both to produce smoke that will transmit wood flavor to your food. There’s practically none of it in charcoal.
And what of the perfectly respectable charcoal-only burgers enjoyed at countless barbecues every weekend?
Well, again, moisture is largely responsible for making those burgers taste like they were grilled rather than fried. But in this case the flavor is not from the wood—that departed in the kiln. When grilled over a dry charcoal fire (or a gas one, for that matter) on a standard bar surface, dinner’s juices, seasonings and fats drip into the heat and ignite, throwing off their own smoke, which in turn rises and flavors your food—often quite well. Hold a dripping, seasoned patty over a burner in the kitchen and you’ll get you a similar result—but I don’t recommend it.
The moisture, the sap, the thousands of substances that make up a piece of wood are responsible for the flavor we shoot for on a wood-fired grill. They’re why hickory smoke smells different from mesquite; why apple smoke is almost sweet while cedar is pungent. When wood’s individuality is burned away to make charcoal all you have left to light is a near-pure reaction between carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Not too tasty.
Bear no hate for charcoal. It’s vital to grilling. Once established in the heart of a fire it’s responsible for the steady heat needed to cook predictably, it makes “low and slow” possible (alongside smoldering hickory or oak) and in a professional setting chunk charcoal is a perfect supplement to deliver a high volume of plates on a limited supply of wood.
But charcoal only? Like a steak without salt.
*Thanks to Vivien Lecoustre, PhD, or “Dr. Fire,” for checking my science.
Ben Eisendrath is the CEO of Grillworks, a specialty wood-fired grill design house long a favorite of chefs and grilling purists. His open-fire creations trace a heritage to Argentine techniques, stemming from a time his dad based the family (and young Ben) in Buenos Aires. Though he now ships grills all over the world, they are still hand built in Michigan, near the cherry farm where he grew up after the family returned to the United States. When not working out new ideas with chefs Ben writes about fire and food. http://grillworks.com
Eddy Awards for excellence in publishing for the year 2012.
Last month, Edible Communities publishers from around the country and Canada gathered in Santa Barbara for our annual publishers meeting. Networking, sharing strategies, and of course eating and drinking the best Santa Barbara has to offer were common themes. Ultimately though, it’s the Eddy’s that count. Edible publishers submitted their best work from 2012 in 23 categories, ranging from humor to political, to best letter from the editor. Here’s a short list of some of the winners!
We are very excited to announce that Marion Nestle will be the keynote speaker for Edible Institute 2013!
Marion is the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health (the department she chaired from 1988-2003) and Professor of Sociology at New York University. She is the author of many books, including her most recent title, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.
Tickets to Edible Institute 2013 include the complete Saturday and Sunday programs (lunch is provided both days), plus the Food & Drink Gala on Saturday evening.
Please note: Ticket price does not include hotel accommodations. All tickets are Non-Refundable.
Edible Institute 2013 begins promptly at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 16 and runs until approximately 5:00 p.m. Lunch is provided.
The Edible Institute Food and Drink gala begins at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 16 and ends at 10:00 p.m.
Sunday sessions for Edible Institute begin at 9:00 a.m. March 17 and end at approximately 4 p.m. Lunch is provided.
Cookbooks top the gift list of many Edible publishers and here’s a recommended list from Edibles around the country.
Fire in My Belly: Real Cooking
Kevin Gillespie with David Joachim. Andrews McMeel (2012)
Recommended by Terri Tubbs, Edible Atlanta.
Gillespie, the executive chef at Atlanta’s Woodfire Grill, makes an impressive cookbook debut with this inspired collection of more than 120 recipes, based on his restaurant creations but modified for the home cook. In a clever chapter entitled “Foods You Thought You Hated,” he arms himself with garlic, spices, and cream to make palatable dishes like brussels sprouts gratin and haggis with caramelized turnip. He preaches the use of local and sustainable foods, but that does not mean he cannot own up to a chapter entitled “Junk Food,” with such entries as deep-fried candy bars. Read more from Publishers Weekly: Fire in My Belly.
Edible Brooklyn, The Cookbook
Rachel Wharton, Sterling Epicure (2011)
Celebrate Brooklyn’s best, with the most delicious dishes from the borough’s top foodies. Edible Brooklyn: The Cookbook, edited by Brooklynite Rachel Wharton and with images from Edible Communities founder Carole Topalian, takes you on a photo-packed, tasty tour of one of America’s most diverse locales and its gastronomic pleasures. In addition to mouthwatering recipes, you’ll meet the people who create this edible goodness, take a close-up look at the institutions that make Brooklyn an epicure’s delight, explore food-fabulous, ethnically diverse neighborhoods, and get edible tips plus information on obtaining the ingredients. Continue reading on Edible Brooklyn.
Ripe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables
Cheryl Sternman Rule. Running Press (2012)
Recommended by Claudia Mahedy, Edible Idaho South.
Rule, a noted food writer and blogger, offers a lovely and gorgeous tribute to vegetables and fruits everywhere in this unusual cookbook. Organized by color rather than season or meal type, to the presentation aims to excite readers about the beauty and appealing tastes of everything from pomegranates and clementines to artichokes and spinach. Recipes include witty and whimsical head notes that provide tips for preparing and serving. Continue reading on Publishers Weekly: Ripe.
Marmalade: Sweet and Savory Spreads for a Sophisticated Taste
By Elizabeth Field, Running Press (2012).
There’s nothing better than a jar of homemade marmalade for the DIY-er with a yen for barely sweet spreads. When winter sets in, so does citrus season, opening up a world of possibilities for all kinds of sweet—and even savory—marmalades for spreading on toast and eating straight out of the jar. Continue reading on Running Press: Marmalade House.
Edible: A Celebration of Local Foods
Tracey Ryder, Carole Topalian, Wiley (2010)
Ryder and Topalian, cofounders of Edible Communities Publications, a network of 65 regional food magazines that honor place-based food, cull the best of the best Edible articles to create an inviting and rewarding collection celebrating local food and sustainable food systems around the U.S. and Canada. With 150 striking color photos, the book is a feast for the eyes, mind, and palate. Divided into geographic regions, it shares success stories and profiles of remarkable individuals and businesses in each, from Boston’s Allandale Farm, the last working farm in the area, through Phoenix’s gentle giant chef Greg LaPrad, to Seattle’s Lummi Island Wild Preserves. –Publishers Weekly. Order your copy of Edible here.
Locavore Adventures: One Chef’s Slow Food Journey
By Jim Weaver, Rivergate Books, Feb. 2012.
America’s fast food culture reflects not only what we eat—foods that are processed and packaged for convenience—but also how we eat—munching as we multitask and not really tasting the super-sized meals we ingest. In Locavore Adventures, acclaimed New Jersey chef and restaurateur Jim Weaver shares his personal story of how he came to solve this problem—building a local slow food culture that is ecologically responsible and also yields delicious results. Continue reading on Rutgers University Press: Locavore Adventures.
Field to Feast: Recipes Celebrating Floridas Farmers, Chefs, and Artisans
Pam Brandon and Katie Farmand, and Heather McPherson, University Press of Florida (2012)
In a state better known for miles of sandy beaches, tourist attractions, and space shuttles, it is often overlooked that Florida offers more to savor than merely seafood and citrus. Name an ingredient and you’re likely to find it here. Talk to chefs in Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville, or Tampa, and they’re likely to reveal their favorite local farmer, beekeeper, or rancher. Continue reading on Field to Feast.
Edible Seattle, The Cookbook
Jill Lightner, Sterling Epicure (2012)
Edible Seattle: The Cookbook is a cutting-edge celebration of the city’s diverse, delicious, and dynamic food culture. Brimming with tempting photographs, it features engaging profiles of the people, places, and ingredients that make Seattle unique, along with more than 100 mouthwatering recipes and invaluable tips, techniques, and ideas. Order your copy of Edible Seattle, The Cookbook here.
Canal House Cooking: Canal House Cooks Lunch
Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, Canal House (2012)
It’s a year of cooking from Canal House, based on the popular daily lunch blog, Canal House Cooks Lunch. It’s a handsome 385-page book with a classic red cloth cover and nearly 250 new recipes and more than 130 photographs and illustrations. It’s pure Canal House. Continue reading on Canal House.
We’ve collected favorite recipes from farmers’ markets throughout New Jersey for this magazine-style cookbook which is destined to become a Jersey Fresh food lover’s treasure! It includes over 30 delicious seasonal recipes, mouth-watering photography and tips on how to best select and store fresh produce. It also features the Edible Jersey’s 2012 Farmers’ Market Guide and seasonality chart. Continue reading on Edible Jersey.
At Edible Communities, we believe that every person has the right to affordable, fresh, healthful food on a daily basis and that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. Our publications help educate our neighbors, friends, and community leaders about the importance of eating seasonally and help to bring local family farmers, chefs, and food artisans together to promote a more sustainable food system. That is why Edible Communities is joining over 1000 chefs (Chefs’ Petition In Support of Prop 37), over 1 million California residents (Yes on Prop 37) and over 3500 organizations (CA Right to Know Endorsements) in supporting Yes on Proposition 37: Right to Know.
Proposition 37 is a November ballot measure in California requiring labels that inform consumers which foods contain genetically modified ingredients. If it passes, Prop 37 would also prohibit marketing food with GMO ingredients, as ‘natural.’ As Mark Bittman of the New York Times noted: “Prop 37 isn’t a ban on foods containing genetically engineered material; it’s a right-to-know law. We have a right to know what’s in the food we eat and a right to know how it’s produced.” (More here: G.M.O.’s: Let’s Label ’Em)
So what are genetically modified ingredients (GMOs)? A genetically engineered food is a plant or meat product that has had its DNA artificially altered in a laboratory by genes from other plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria in order to produce foreign compounds in that food. This type of genetic alteration is not found in nature and is experimental. Many of the foods we currently eat and feed our families (including certain baby formulas and a high percentage of corn, soy, cotton and sugar beets commonly used in processed foods sold in the U.S.), but we don’t know which ones without labeling. — From the Yes on Prop 37 website. Get all the facts here: Why Labeling GMOs is Important.
Read more on GMO’s from Edible Communities California publications:
Welcome to the food system of the U.S.-Mexico border —the geopolitical boundary with the greatest economic disparity in the world. Stories written and spoken about this unnatural rift in the landscape are the stuff of myth, literary leaping or yarn spinning, depending on who tells the tale. The U.S./Mexico border is also, for many, una herida abierta—an open wound. It’s a third country altogether; a ghostly apparition; America’s neglected playground; el Norte—where the grass is always greener (if it is alive at all), and so on. — Hungry for Change: Borderlands Food and Water in the Balance
When Local is Binational: Borderland Food in Nogales
By Gary Nabhan
When the food relocalization movement revved up its engines a dozen years ago, I would often see maps that circumscribed “local foodsheds” by county, state, or region of our sprawling nation, but they never crossed international boundaries. But when I recently moved to southern Arizona to plant an heirloom orchard just twelve miles north of the U.S./Mexico line, such maps suddenly made little sense to me.
As I searched for low chill fruit and nut varieties to plant in my orchard, I learned that the Mission olive, fig, grape, pomegranate and quince selections best suited to my microclimate were once widely cultivated on both sides of the line, but had so dramatically declined north of the border than few American nurseries offered them anymore. When I searched for commercial availability of native foods and beverages of our Sonoran Desert region—chiltepines, Emory oak acorns, mescal and mesquite—most of the harvests were being wild-foraged from landscapes like ours just south of the line.
Baffled by this food flowing in from just south of the internaional boundary—for I had always dismissed it as being unnecessarily “outsourced”—I began to ask tougher questions that demolished the old assumptions I had held.
Was it better for me to source fresh fruits and vegetables from small Sonoran farms just fifty miles from my home, or purchase the same kinds that had been shipped in from California more than eight hundred miles in the trucks of Veritable Vegetable?
Are my neighboring Mexican farmers using less fossil fuel and government subsidied water than farmers in California, especially those which irrigate crops from large irrigation projects which have cost us all billions of dollars and depleted the flows of many rivers?
Are Mexican-born farmworkers better off staying in their home villages and working for lower wages, or better off migrating to the U.S. where wages are higher but the cost of living is too? Where is occupation health care more responsive to their needs? Where will their children get a better education?
Now a new report—Hungry for Change: Borderlands Food and Water in the Balance—attempts to pose such questions about our inherently binational food system, and answers—at least provisionally—some of those more difficult questions. Further, it reminds Americans just how much of our entire food supply is dependent upon labor, expertise, ingenuity, seeds, seafood and water originating in Mexico.The report, released this last week by the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, was prepared for discussion at the first-ever Border Food Summit to be held September 16th to 18th near Nogales, Arizona. Nogales, by the way, is the most important inland food port-of-entry in the world. Among its many findings are the following points:
Roughly sixty to seventy percent of all fresh produce eaten in the U.S. is grown in Mexico, but production and transportation of these fruits and vegetables can be easily disrupted by climatic disasters, by social conflicts, or by national policy shifts.
Roughly 150,000 to 170,000 tons of seafood are exported from Mexico to the U.S. each year, and three of every four pounds of fish and shellfish caught or cultured off the coast of just one Mexican state—Sonora— is served on American tables.
Three-quarters of all farmworkers in the U.S. who harvest the produce we’ve grown up easting were born in Mexico. But since 2009, many have returned to their homeland as the rancor over immigration has escalated in the U.S., leaving 30 to 40% of the California acres sown to hand-picked fruits and vegetables unpicked this year alone.
While immigration was once driven by the fact that per capita income in the U.S. is 5.6 times greater than that in Mexico, these national trends no longer reflect realities closer to the border. Today, U.S. border counties suffer poverty levels twice as high as the country as a whole, residents in Mexico’s northern states have incomes 75% higher than those in the rest of the Republic.
Despite the enormous volume of produce flowing down food superhighways crossing the border at Nogales, San Diego, El Paso or McAllen, there are few “exit ramps” for that food to reach the poor living along the border. Despite some produce brokers donating lasrge quantities of foods to community food banks and “markets on the move,” the border states of Arizona and New Mexico being ranked in the five worst states in terms of childhood food insecurity.
Since the economic downturn and regional drought, the poorest of illegal immigrants in urban and rural areas have sought food and employment from source below the radar of government agencies. Their emerging informal food economy has apparently become more of a safety net for their families than have governments or non-profit relief efforts.
Food marketing innovations which started south of the border are literally changing the “mouth” if not the entire face of America. Taco trucks are everywhere in America today, and Tucson is now tied with Los Angeles for having the highest density of mobile food wagons per capita in the U.S. Why eat at Taco Bell when you can have fresh vegetables in handmade tortillas to eat on the street?
One thing becomes clear as we try to fathom all the implications of these trends and statistics: to achieve true food justice in the U.S., we must also strive for immigration justice and justice regarding who and what we subsidize in our food system. So ask yourself, what will true border food justice look like, taste like and feel like to you?
Drink Tank host Gibson Thomas, publisher and editor of Edible Marin & Wine Country, talks to Benjamin Mélin-Jones, managing director of Clément USA Inc. and descendant of Homere Clément, deemed by many to be the “father of Rhum Agricole.”
Gibson and Ben discuss the introduction of sugar cane into the Carribean by Christopher Columbus, the discovery of it’s “spirituous” properties when fermented and distilled and how the “sugar crisis” in the late 1800s led to the creation of Rhum Agricole – a spirit produced directly from fresh pressed cane juice and protected by it’s own AOC designation. A spirit with a long and storied history, Rhum Agricole is enjoying a renaissance in today’s cocktail culture. Learn more about Rhum Agricole, the legacy of Homere Clément and where to find Rhum Clément spirits near you at Clément USA Inc.
Herb Eckhouse explains why Americans need to declare Ham Independence June 28 – July 4. The founder of La Quercia artisanal prosciutto and other cured meats. In Patnry Raid we talk about recipes using Spring into Summer produce: Radish Gazpacho with fish roe and a rice pudding with strawberries, cinnamon and rosemary.
Silva, a fifth-generation Sonoma County native, comes from a family with a long history of dairy farming in the area. After an almost decade-long detour as a practicing attorney, Christopher returned to his farming roots in 1998, this time farming grapes and making world-renowned wines as part of the St. Francis team. Christopher was named President & CEO of St. Francis in 2003.