The scents of wood smoke and burnt sugar remind many people of times spent around a campfire singeing marshmallows for s’mores.
Few people ever move beyond cooking marshmallows or at most, a hot dog on a stick, over a fire.
A pair of recent books aim to inspire people to rediscover the joys of cooking over fire: “Smoke: New Firewood Cooking,” by Dallas chef Tim Byres, whose book won a James Beard book award earlier this year, and “Cooking With Fire,” by former archaeologist and food historian Paula Marcoux.
Marcoux, who will be speaking Sept. 17 at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, says the renewed interest in firewood cooking dovetails with broader trends: a desire to eat more local foods, to know where food comes from, to move away from processed foods.
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“It is touching a nerve. People are tired of being divorced from their food,” she said. “Turning on an electric stove or gas stove – those are things that don’t have the same kind of satisfaction or the social life as around the fire.”
Cooking over a fire is more than meal; it becomes an event. Not only does it allow people to reconnect with a childhood pleasure, but now as adults they have a kitchen full of tools and skills at their disposal.
This style of cooking cannot be rushed. The food tastes better cooked slowly – a lesson learned by anyone who has tasted a blackened marshmallow with a springy center. It creates an opportunity to gather together, tell stories, sip a beer or a glass of wine, and savor the experience.
It will pay off in the end in terms of taste, said Johnson & Wales cooking instructor Robert Brener, who built an outdoor fireplace for cooking at his Charlotte home six years ago.
“You cannot create the amount of heat with gas or electric,” he explained. “You can’t get man-made heat that hot.”
That high heat, Brener said, creates a better crust and caramelization, as well as that smoky flavor: “You get much better texture and a much better flavor profile.”
One indication that cooking with wood may be catching on in the Carolinas: There’s enough interest to support a company that sells locally harvested firewood.
Bud Williford started Carolina Cookwood, which is based in Upstate South Carolina, in 2009. His restaurant customers include North Carolina and South Carolina locations of national chains, Firebirds and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, as well as Charlotte restaurants Roosters, Fahrenheit, Upstream and Mimosa Grill. Bags of Williford’s wood chunks, a product for grilling and smoking enthusiasts, are sold at Whole Food stores across the state, including those in Wake County, starting last week.
For some, the obsession with cooking over fire begins with camping trips or Scouts.
Eric Krause got involved with Scouting with his 12-year-old son, Campbell, and Pack 3 at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte. Starting as Cub Scouts, Krause said, the boys learn how to light a fire (with adult supervision, of course); how to toast a marshmallow; how to make what is called a “hobo pouch” (pieces of food in a foil packet and placed on the coals); and eventually graduate to cooking with a Dutch oven.
“What boy doesn’t like to play with fire?” Krause asked. “So we’re teaching them how to do it responsibly. The boys walk away feeling empowered. It’s great to watch.” Krause now competes on a barbecue team.
Other aficionados are seduced by different wood-fired foods, like bread for N.C. State University assistant professor David Auerbach, who built a wood-fired oven in his Durham backyard 16 years ago. Or tomato pies, like Bob Radcliffe, who holds monthly pizza dining events at his Lynch Creek Farm in Franklin County to use the wood-fired oven that he built.
That desire to create a space to indulge in wood-fired cooking delights Marcoux. She says so many people have told her: “Your book inspired me to make a fire pit in my backyard.”
That, she said, is her greatest pleasure: “So many people did it. I’m excited to inspire people to do the simplest things.”