Unplug, get outdoors, and cook real food over a real fire this summer.
I was first exposed to open-fire cooking at an early age. My father’s family waterskied and fished a number of Ohio’s lakes. I remember many fun-filled outings on Grandpa’s speedboat catching sunfish and bluegill from the dock at Indian Lake when I was only 4 years old.
I’ll never forget one particular weekend of fishing and camping with my dad and older brother: hilarious memories of skunks sniffing our sneakers on the other side of the tent’s screen door, just inches away from our faces, and a spider making my dad scream as it scrambled across his bare back in the middle of the night. I also remember catching ridiculous amounts of fish on that trip. You couldn’t drop a hook in the water without catching something. We cleaned and cooked them on the campfire. I was no older than 8 at the time.
Driven to fire
As a Cub Scout, Webelo, and Boy Scout, I developed outdoor skills like open-fire cooking and foraging. They were among the many stepping stones on my journey to being an outdoorsman who feels a true spiritual connection with nature.
My indoor life is fed by my outdoor life. It’s as though my batteries are emptied by screens, computers, and paperwork, but recharged by farming, foraging, and cooking and eating natural, healthy foods. The best part is the feeling you get when doing these things with friends and loved ones.
What is it about outdoor and open-fire cooking that makes us feel like we are celebrating something? Is it because we get the grill going on special occasions? Is it the cache of childhood memories from Fourth of July backyard barbecues and trips to the lake with campfires and picnic baskets?
Perhaps. I believe that this feeling resides in a deep and latent part of our DNA where we find visceral memories born from our ancestral experiences. These old traditions are carved into the essence of who we are and remind us of our history of feasting around a fire, cooking and sharing the bounty of what we hunted and gathered with our trusted friends and family.
In modern life, these natural and primal elements and our technological advancements collide. Some see these advancements as our evolutionary transformation on the way to singularity and assume our consciousness will soon be transferred to everlasting life in the cloud. Are we so far removed from this ancestral knowledge that we need people to tell us how to cook on an open fire?
The Mallmann effect
The popularity of one famous chef, Francis Mallmann, proves that the answer to this question is an emphatic “Yes.” His book Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way feels like it’s trying to sell the idea that Mallmann’s food is unpretentious. Yet anyone who has seen him on “Chef’s Table” or “Mind of a Chef” might feel otherwise. Can that level of fussy artistry be classified merely as his quirky panache?
With Mallmann, I can’t help but want to set the record straight, and something tells me his ego can handle it. I guess it could be my deep hatred of any soupçon of elitism. Is it his fun outfits, fully equipped with French berets and capes, that make him seem like an Argentine superhero? Or is it his unabashed ego that somehow flaunts a silver spoon, which is never becoming. I mean ponchos are still cool, and he’s not appropriating them. The beret? Maybe.
Fans or critics of the menus I design and execute are definitely aware that, although I sometimes enjoy complexity, my true nature leans toward the simple. When I cook for myself with no agenda and nothing to prove, it’s usually a simple protein with some veggies and aromatics, smoked low and slow, or cooked minimally on relatively high heat in butter or animal fat. Open-fire cooking for me is a special occasion.
In Seven Fires, Mallmann writes that he grew “tired of making fancy French food for wealthy customers in Buenos Aires” and decided to research and return to his fiery Argentinian roots.” This led him to an even more exclusive way of life that allows him to charge exorbitant fees to fly around the world cooking for celebrities like Bono. For $44,000 you and three friends can get some open-fire cooking lessons from him in Patagonia.
It’s a reminder that in this day and age someone with a novel marketing campaign can sell an old idea. I liken it to the first person to market butter as gluten-free. I don’t question that Mallmann’s food is delicious. He is classically trained and has worked with high-caliber chefs in France at Michelin-starred restaurants. I love so many things that he loves; I just don’t seem to like him very much.
Still, at the very least, I can thank Mallmann for reminding me to tell you how unfussy outdoor and open-fire cooking should be. Maybe he and I truly share these common threads from my childhood that inspired us to enjoy this style of cooking so intensely. Or perhaps we both find our ancestral roots inescapably embedded in our psyches despite our very different upbringings. Maybe I could even be nice to him over a glass of wine, or three.
Just remember that you don’t need a beret or a cape or $44,000—no style of cooking is more simple or enjoyable. Make sure that you cook on an open fire at least once this summer. Go fishing. Go camping. Go foraging. Start a garden. Make a fire. Put a whole fish or a steak right on the searing-hot coals with your veggies. Yes, RIGHT ON THE COALS. Use a pan for finishing it off with some butter herbs, onions, and garlic. Do it with some friends and loved ones. You won’t regret it.
Open-fire cooking crash course
- Use wood you know is safe. Avoid pine, fir, spruce, or cedar since they can contain oils and toxins that are unpalatable and/or poisonous. Avoid wood with vines attached because it could be poison ivy.
- Use gloves. I recommend a few kinds of gloves for this kind of outdoor cooking—you’ll have to experiment to see which ones work best for you. Thick leather gloves would be the safest, of course. They won’t catch fire, and will take a moment to heat up so you’ll have a bit of time to wield tongs and to move food and pans around. I personally prefer silicone-dipped gloves, with a 7mm nitrile glove on top since they are thin and allow more dexterous use of my hands. Don’t use anything that can melt to your skin, and make sure they are easy to remove in case they get too hot!
- Build your fire in a beautiful and safe place. Make a fire ring. Position the fire near water or bring water to the location. Accidents can and do happen. And confirm if permitting is needed to build an outdoor fire or if fires are allowed in the area.
- Stir the coals and spread them out. Know that the coals can be hotter than 700°F.
- Stuff whole fish, chicken, or hollow squash with onions, garlic, carrots, fennel, and other aromatics. Peppers and tomatoes also add layers of flavor. The only rule is to use things you like.
- Season liberally. Some of the spices and salt will fall off in the fire, but you can also add more at the end.
- Throw everything right on the hot embers. Add summer squash, beets, potatoes, whole ears of corn with husks, and other vegetables you like.
- Check the food frequently. You can always cook it more. And remember, the coals are hot—treat the food on the coals the same way you would treat them in a really hot pan.
- Enjoy the process—if the food isn’t perfect the first time, try again!
* This story comes to use from Edible Indy. Photos by Michael Schrader.
Jason Michael Thomas owns Urban Awareness Gardens in the heart of downtown Indianapolis, where he elegantly prepares 100% locally farmed and foraged dinners in a private setting. He uses his regular television appearances and social media influence to educate others about the crucial importance of the sustainable food movement, and he promotes a healthy lifestyle by teaching others why they should seek out the most natural and delicious local foods. JasonMichaelThomas.com.