Cooking With Fire

Why Do We Love Barbecue?
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 14 2006 5:47 AM

Cooking With Fire

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Dear Chris and Steven,

It is such a pleasure to be discussing grilling and barbecuing with both of you. Firewise, I'm a total amateur compared to you, although it's one of my favorite ways to cook. I came of cooking age in California restaurants, so the majority of my grilling experience has been high-heat direct grilling with charcoal or wood—in California, they like things fruity, so I've worked with fig, cherry, apple, even grape knurls. Mostly, though, I've used that sparky old carbonized mesquite. I've had a Big Green Egg for a year, which you guys know well but for our readers is a cylindrical ceramic cooker, glazed the most incredible shade of green. Living in Seattle, I try to make a point of cooking out year-round, even in the rain, but I have to admit that I do a lot more grilling when the skies are clear. I've had fun doing some low-temp smoking on my Egg, but it's also great for screaming-quick cooking, too. And did I mention how much I like the color?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

As you can tell, I'm a wood and charcoal girl, although from a distance I admire the no-hassle grilling that comes with gas. For me, grilling or barbecuing is never a question of ease, though: I do it for the flavor, the smell, and, yes, the compliments. How do you feel about charcoal vs. gas? Is your decision a practical or a moral one? Do you have a trick to make charcoal fire-starting less erratic? (I love the old restaurant trick of lighting a couple of big pieces of mesquite charcoal directly on a restaurant kitchen's gas burner, then using those to ignite the rest of the charcoal, but that's not a reasonable option at home.) On the flip side, is there a way to make gas grills taste more like real fire?

I'm also a bit surprised by how many cookouts involve the same ingredients: hot dogs, burgers, and chicken breasts (the latter usually shellacked with sweet barbecue sauce and nearly incinerated). Sure, they can be terrific, but I'd love to see some more adventurous cooking out there. What ingredients are most neglected in the grilling arsenal? Personally, I'd like to see—and cook—more fish, which I think kind of scares people, and frankly can be tricky, since fish flesh, especially tender little filets, has a nasty habit of sticking. Cooking whole fish is one good way to cheat it—just cram some fennel, onions, and/or herbs in the cavity and flop the fish on the (clean, well-lubricated) grill. Having cooked in Berkeley for a time, I learned to like cooking fish in fig leaves (banana leaves and grape leaves do fine as well); now I steal some fig leaves from a neighbor's tree, wash off any bird poop, and wrap fish in that. The fig scents the fish marvelously, and the whole packet is like a well-wrapped present. But do you have any other tricks—do you like those basket-y deals?

In fact, what grilling tools are worth buying? (And which do you think are ridiculous?) I love, love, love my super-geeky meat thermometer with a separate radio-controlled unit that beeps when my meat's hit the right temp. It's about as cool as a fanny pack, but it rocks my world.

I've asked you a number of technical questions, but it would be a shame to spend time with you both without delving into some of the deeper issues surrounding barbecuing and grilling. What is the fundamental appeal of cooking with fire? Is it some cosmic connection to our Neanderthal ancestors, some flicker of rebellion against the technological world, or just the best possible way to cook pork butt? Why do men who otherwise steer clear of the kitchen feel comfortable fussing over a rack of ribs if they're doing it on a Weber? These, I know, are deep issues, and ones that we will not resolve in a few short e-mails, but I feel it is my duty to inquire.

Best to you,
Sara

For years, Sara Dickerman worked as a restaurant cook; she is now the food and dining editor at Seattle Magazine. Steven Raichlen is the author of award-winning Barbecue Bible, How To Grill, and the new Raichlen on Ribs, and is the host of Barbecue University on PBS. He's also the creator of the Best of Barbecue line of grilling accessories. Chris Schlesinger opened the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., in 1985. He is the author of eight cookbooks and also won the James Beard award for the best chef in the Northeast.