Sometimes, for the sake of my marriage, I try to look at myself through my wife’s eyes.
Early this month, for instance, my wife came home one day to see me crouched by our fireplace in the living room. My hands were black. Next to me, hot flames were licking at a hunk of beef. There was a dark smear — soot? charcoal? mascara? — beneath my right eye. The house smelled good — fire, smoke, meat — but it was not a normal smell. It was like a campfire, but inside the house.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
The beef was hanging on a string from the mantle, twirling slowly in front of the glowing embers. I was brushing it with a mixture of olive oil, garlic, wine and thyme.
1. Light a wood fire in your fireplace and wait until the flames burn down and the embers are glowing hot.
2. Prop a heavy frying pan — cast iron is best — on a flat portion of the embers.
3. Allow pan to heat, then add olive oil.
4. When the oil is very hot, add a slice of good bread.
5. Let it brown, then flip it.
6. Crack eggs into the pan beside the bread.
7. They will set and cook very rapidly.
8. When they’re set, take the pan carefully from the fire.
9. Use a spatula to remove the eggs and the bread.
10. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
It was the second week of cold weather and heavy rains, and I was cooking almost every meal in our fireplace.
My forbearing wife has accepted my relentless steps toward more rural urban living. There was our backyard garden formed by using ripped-up concrete from our driveway as a retaining wall (which she calls “The Kotel”); the fine front lawn I tore out and replaced with 62 artichoke plants. There are the five chickens and, yes, the two goats. All this had changed our home and our lives, in good ways, but, still, as I crouched like a caveman by my meat and fire, I could understand the worry implicit in my wife’s question: “Is this the new normal?”
That morning, I had lit a fire, waited for the flames to die down, then cooked perfect fried eggs in a cast iron pan amid the dry heat and wood smoke. For dinner the night before, I seared red snapper in the pan and tucked potatoes wrapped in foil into the embers. One night, I grilled mushrooms, and a couple of times when company came over, I stood a hunk of raclette cheese by the flames and let guests scoop the fragrant, oozing melt onto cubes of bread.
The night my wife walked in, I was going full “Survivor,” suspending a garlic-studded 5-pound roast close enough to the flames to broil, like a Tel Aviv shwarma. Many years earlier, I had read my cookbook god Richard Olney, in “Simple French Food,” describe this as cooking à la ficelle — on a string. Now I was finally trying it myself.
My enthusiasm had burned through our supply of wood. I ran back to All Cities Firewood on West Adams and asked for more almond wood. The man took me to the back, where he had a smoker stoked with semi-dry chunks of oak blasting away. The scent, just 200 yards from the I-10, was heavenly. “That’s what you want,” he told me. He was a fellow fire-cooker.
No one ever found inspiration staring into a well-regulated gas flame, an electric coil or, heaven knows, an induction heating surface.
But, crouched by my fireplace, feeding it logs, feeding my family its food, was so elemental, so fulfilling.
In his book “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,” anthropologist Richard Wrangham dismisses the idea that humans were drawn to fire for warmth — gorillas sleep outdoors at high altitudes, he points out. No, the point of fire was cooking — making food digestible and more instantly nutritious.
Staring into my flames, I realized that cooking and religion are two things that separate us from animals, and what they have in common is fire. The fire of dinner became the flame of sacrifice; to fire’s transformative power we entrust our bodies through food and our souls through sacrifice. Drawing close to the fire, I felt both body and soul replenished.
In Judaism, sacrifice gave way to prayer after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Fireplace cooking lasted much longer, into the 19th century. The grand antebellum Southern plantations had whole outbuildings devoted to hearth cooking. The gas stove wasn’t factory-produced until the 1880s. In the scope of human history, that’s last week. Something in us — in me — wants to be back at the hearth.
Still, it’s weird, I grant my wife that, to come home to a husband who looks like a National Geographic photo. But for as long as the rain fell, I cooked at our hearth. The high heat and dry air made the fish sear crisply, the eggs set in an instant. The vegetables tasted more substantial. The meat took hours to cook, but the oak fragranced every bite.
“Man make fire,” Tom Hanks grunts in “Cast Away,” getting it exactly backward: Fire makes man.
For hearth cooking recipes and photos visit jewishjournal.com/foodaism.