Cooking with Fire

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In Michael Pollan’s recent book and Netflix documentary Cooked, we are invited to reflect upon and celebrate the influence of cooking on humanity.  I first stumbled onto the series last fall, and was delighted to see how Pollan incorporated all of the areas I care most about studying these days: tradition, ceremony, community, nature, ancestors, food.  Cooked offers an anthropological and evolutionary perspective on the way learning to cook our food changed us as a species and shaped human cultures around the world.

His first episode is focused exclusively on cooking with the element of fire.  Pollan visits with cultural anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss, author of The Raw and the Cooked, who explains that cooking with fire is what evolved habiline (an extinct species of humans dating back nearly 2 million years) to homo erectus, the relative that evolved into our current species of homo sapiens, or what we think of as today’s humans.

Strauss explained that the increased energy obtained from cooked food, which is easier to digest than raw, was an evolutionary game changer for humans, and fire is what gave the first cooks distinct biological advantages.  Changes were seen in the skull, teeth and abdominal cavities when cooking was introduced, and fossil evidence suggests that the cooked food transition provided pivotal momentum for these changes.

One of my favorite things about Michael Pollan’s work lies in his ability to see and surface the evolutionary value of tradition.  He reminds us that the traditions which manage to “stay” over time and across cultures are still around because they offer our species some distinct survival advantage.  They either kept people happier, healthier, or both. And, according to Pollan, if we as a species choose to ignore the ones that have survived, for example by say, outsourcing all of our food experiences to corporations and by teaching our children to become passive consumers who are disconnected from their food sources, we are losing something of value, and possibly something that is critically important to our identity and continued survival.

In his video, Pollan recalls common childhood memories of mothers and grandmothers around bubbling pots and pans, family meals, and stories of rites of passages around barbecue grills.  He ends each episode with the building of community through a shared meal with friends.

While watching his series, I started to wonder if my kids will have the same memories that I and generations before me share around food…  All of this wondering inspired me to create a little food gathering of my own.

I invited some open, curious, and kind friends – all women – who I knew would humor my interests and (hopefully) enjoy learning with me, to gather with the purpose of honoring tradition, ancestors, community and food by cooking together with fire.

I found myself worrying about the tiny detail that I didn’t actually know how to cook with fire.  Barbecue, the most well-known form of cooking with fire, traditionally was a role left to the men in my family, and it turns out, it was also the role of men in ancient cultures around the world.  The men were both the hunters and the cooks, and it was considered a great honor to be at the helm of the food they provided to their communities.

After making peace with the fact that I had no fire cooking skills or experience (and the reality that given my lack of experience, the food was highly likely to not taste very good), I put my faith solely in the value of the shared experience, and  I sent out my email invitations.

Resisting many urges between the invitation and the event to try out menus in advance to ensure our efforts were successful, I revealed to my friends upon their arrival that, for better or worse, we were going to figure this cooking with fire thing out together.

I had prepared by purchasing skewers, coal, a grill, a variety of raw vegetables, chicken, herbs, seasonings and sangria fixings, and everyone who attended brought a dish to share.

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In fact, one of the small grills I planned to use that day was still in the box when my friends arrived. (Thanks again for being such good sports, ladies!)  When we started looking through the manual to assemble the grill and became a bit discouraged by the extent of screws, washers, vents and handles not yet attached, it was tempting to pass the grill project on to my husband in the other room, which would allow us to relax and visit until he brought it back.

Luckily I was surrounded by intelligent, stubborn, resourceful and determined women, one in particular named Christine, who knew that was unnecessary and that handing this project over to a man would only occur over her dead body.

Christine built the secondary grill with the support of a few others, while I sliced the raw meat into skewer size pieces and chatted with my friend Margaret. Others sipped water and sangria and visited on our shaded porch.

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When the grill was lit, we let the coals smolder about thirty minutes.  And at the end of that I invited the women to build their own individual kebabs of meat and vegetables.

Everyone got as creative as they wanted – some put slices of lemon and lime on their skewer, others put mango and pineapples amongst mushrooms and brussels, and some added medjool dates as adventurous accessories to their chicken and onion along with a variety of seasonings, and avocado oil.  We each tried to make our kebabs look distinct from anyone else’s so they would be easily recognizable when they came off the grill.

We had vegetable and fruit kebabs going on one fire pit, and the raw meat kebabs on the small grill Christine had assembled, because we knew enough about cooking to realize the veggies would cook at a completely different rate than the meat.

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We chatted about the first episode of Cooked as we smelled the meat and veggies roasting.  We noticed a red-shouldered hawk above us, and later noticed the doves cooing around us.

When all was ready, we gathered around the table.

My friends Karen and Alisa saw that we would be sitting in full sun because of the hour of day, and they immediately took it upon themselves to move my porch table into a small section of shade. 

The eight of us managed to squeeze around the (now shaded) six-seater table, and we chatted about things ranging from the ethical decisions involved in raising and sourcing animals for food, to the different cultures and communities Pollan explored in his video, to our past jobs, to our kids, to random facts about health and nutrition, to silly stories about trying to outsmart squirrels who robbed bird feeders.  We shared our past experiences, and our excitement for upcoming adventures – one of our attendees was moving to another country that same week – and other moments of life, in the way women have done over meals for generations.

Thinking back to our visit, I now am struck by what should have been obvious all along: how completely natural it was for a group of friends to gather and work together in the creation of a shared meal.

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I was self-conscious as hostess, and worried about the stacks of clutter that surround my home, and wondered if I should be guiding the conversation to topics I had initially  wanted to discuss that we hadn’t gotten around to yet.  After time passed though, I realized how appropriate it was that we discussed the things our mothers and grandmothers had shared with women in their own kitchens: stories about our lives and families, laughter, community, and the future.  And all of the comments were acknowledged and supported with encouraging words and kind smiles.

There was nothing overly profound about any of our conversations, and some ended up sharing more than others.  We laughed – one laugh in particular was big enough for me to have tears in my eyes, and continue laughing for a few days each time I remembered the conversation.

When I host a gathering like this again, there are a few things I would change here and there that we learned together that day through trial and error. For example, the food was good, although a little too cold by the time we finally sat down. My friend Christine may be relieved to know that I’ll probably try build the grill in advance the next time too.

My favorites of the food that day included the grilled fruits: warm mango, dates, pineapple, paired with cold and creamy goat cheese.  I also really loved the sprouted quinoa salad my friend Alisa shared with us.

The meal wasn’t a culinary masterpiece of any sort.  But it was fun, and it was community.

And, maybe most importantly, it was ours.

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