Savoring the 612

Let’s clear the air


“Tis the Season,” I murmur to myself as the aroma of smoke from woodfired charcoal graces my nostrils. I begin to imagine platters piled high with dry-rubbed pork ribs released from the bonds of household plastic wrap, sirloin roasts raised from the depths of overnight marinades or a rainbow of shrimp and vegetable skewers lined up like a color guard at the world’s most delicious Pride Parade.
Then I remind myself that it’s eight o’clock in the morning on a non-holiday Tuesday. Like all of you, I am not smelling preparations for the multitudinous celebrations of summer so much as I am thousands of acres of northern wilderness swallowed by relentless infernos. It’s heartbreaking.
Over Memorial Day weekend, my wife and I treated ourselves to an early anniversary present with the purchase of a newfangled backyard fireplace. Because of the sweltering temperatures and repeatedly questionable air quality, it remains unchristened in circle of chairs on our patio – a sort of uncomfortable stainless steel ottoman.
To live in a paradise so blessed with ready access to myriad bodies of water and to watch them shrivel, un-slaked by rain, seriously chokes the zeal in one’s soul required to fire up a proper barbecue.
Having spent a lifetime transforming the best of Mother Nature’s bounty into deliciousness with the help of open flame, I know full well that other options exist for outdoor, charbroiled hoedowns. I also know that most of them are quite economical and arguably more earth-friendly.
The problem is that I love the visceral thrill of skillfully lighting a fire for the purpose of comfort, fellowship and gastronomic celebration. I can honestly say that I have never started a fire - whether in a Boundary Waters firepit, the enormous hearth of a fine-dining kitchen, or in my backyard Weber with the shoddy plastic wheels – without succumbing to the sensation of time travel.
There are few experiences left in our modern life that allow us to place ourselves in the shoes of any ancestry. Building a modest fire is a common thread of human culture stretching across every continent, island and atoll for millennia. The fires we learned to create provided every kind of person who ever lived on any part of the planet with safety, salvation and sustenance.
It’s kind of miraculous, when one considers it, that with the proper tools, provisions and experience, a cold spot in the ground can be transformed into a kitchen doling out bowls of a one-pot meal in about the time it takes to watch an episode of “Vanderpump Rules” (give or take the amount of time one requires for the shower needed after watching an episode of “Vanderpump Rules”).
Don’t we owe it to ourselves and to our communities, in the little time that we’re here, to try and solve the environmental crises that make us second-guess whether we should be indulging in as comforting and enlightening a human experience as starting and sharing a cooking fire?
In the early 2010s, a series of papers were published by archeologists and neuroscientists proffering the theory that our distant ancestors became better communicators and problem-solvers because they gathered around campfires when the sun went down ( They communed to share not only the daily bounty they had harvested, but the experiences and dreams that only the safety and meditative quality of fire could provide.
I have long been witness to a well-prepared meal’s ability to open minds, to heal and to induce gratitude. That goes double for food prepared outdoors – barbecue in particular. It seems to be a universal love language – I dare say even for vegans and vegetarians (grilled sweet corn, zucchini tenders and cauliflower steaks, anyone?).
Perhaps our best chance at making progress on the inequities in our society and the climate catastrophes curtailing the quality of our air and our water is to quit holding conferences in ivory towers and plate glass conference rooms. Let’s fuel solutions with grilled deliciousness piled on a biodegradable paper plate eaten with our fingers or bamboo flatware in a city park or public beach.
Thanissaro Bhikku once wrote, “Human beings are most free when we are allowed to create spontaneously from the heart.” In this season where we gather to consider what our responsibilities are to cultivate that way of life in our communities, I can’t dissociate heartful creativity from cooking.
So, as soon the air is clear, I’ll be the first one to get up early and light the fires. BYOB. Everyone is invited.


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