WRITTEN BY REBECCA REMILLARD
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF edible HAWAIIAN ISLANDS AT THE BARN, MAUI HAWAI‘I
FIRE, THE DESTROYER, the purifier; get close to it for warmth, for illumination; feel the fire of passion, feel power; find hope in its flames and knowledge. It may be that fire signifies so much for us because it is one of the things that makes us who we are. Humans are the only beings to have controlled fire and with it, we cook.
Perhaps it was serendipity, a hominid banging rocks together and creating a spark that caught, or maybe it was inspiration from a wildfire, cautiously transferred then constrained in a small pit in a cave somewhere. It must have been pure experimentation to throw a hunk of meat on the open flames, but then for the first time in history we watched the fat begin to drip and sizzle and an aroma wafted unlike any before. We were cooking.
Every human culture cooks. Every other Netflix show is about traveling for, cooking with or trying new food. We spend more time planning, shopping for, and cooking meals than we do eating them. To discuss cooking, or the act of putting food to fire, is to open discussions of history, chemistry, geography and human physiology. There is more to cooking than meets the mouth.
THE ROOT OF THE FLAME
The harnessing of fire was an immense turning point in our human evolution. When exactly the first controlled fire burned is still heavily debated, as the evidence mostly went up in flames. Some argue that it was as long as 1.5 million years ago but most scholars can agree upon at least 400,000 years ago. At that point, we were still the Homo erectus version of ourselves but it didn’t take us long to discern that besides the truly major advantages of warmth and protection, fire could also cook food.
Before this point, our diet consisted mostly of seeds, flowers, fruits and – at times – raw meat. The heat of fire, however, chemically and physically transforms food and its advent transformed not only how humans eat, but possibly humans themselves. While cooking meat causes it to lose calories due to fat melting out, it also kills parasites, making it less likely to cause food poisoning, and also reduces the amount of energy it takes to chew and digest. Meat became a staple of the early human diet.
Then there is the somewhat controversial theory, first hypothesized by Frederich Engels in 1876 and expanded on by Richard Wrangham in 2009, that the ability to cook with fire gave Homo erectus such a sudden surplus of nutrients and energy that, over time, it allowed human brain size to increase. This view suggests that cooking with fire transformed us from our ape-like ancestors to the backyard barbecuing Homo sapiens we are now.
THE ELEMENTAL ELEMENT
“There’s something very primal and raw about cooking with live fire. The flavor, the texture is all very natural,” says Noah Hester, chef and owner of Fox BBQ in Kamuela on Hawai‘i Island. He prepares southern-style barbecue in a 28-foot-long custom trailer wood fire smoker and grill. Chef Noah says he’s always been excited by cooking with fire, “You have to harness and control this uncontrollable thing. At the same time, restaurant cooking involves fire. Every cook in the world has that desire [to harness].”
It has been merely 150 years since the gas range became common in household kitchens. Before that, kitchen fires burned almost consistently because, before matches, getting a fire started was much more of a process. Now, with the appearance of electric stovetops and microwaves (if we can really even call this cooking), the closest many Americans get to cooking with live fire is the backyard barbecue, and even then, most are gas or charcoal. Gone are the days where the knowledge of how to start a fire and maintain a desired temperature was necessary to cook anything. Perhaps it is this disconnect that has us seeking out experiences of food being cooked in a more age-old way.
Chef Noah reflects on the Outstanding in the Field dinner he participated in, held in a pasture used for raising lambs in North Kohala. The objective was to cook a five-course meal for 250 people using only natural fire. He remembers it was a rainy, chilly day, “And as guests arrived they walked past this open fire pit being worked with shovels and branches. There were big chunks of lamb being cooked on stones surrounding the fire pit, so the smell was incredible. The fire pit all of a sudden became this gathering place where people started talking to each other and mingling. It really helped bring everyone together over common warmth and the promise of delicious meat. It set the pace for the dinner, and conversations that had started around the fire continued on through the event. I think seeing and smelling the food cooking over this fire and then tasting the finished product really made it that much better.”
UP IN SMOKE
A steady trickle of smoke streams from the chimney of Linae Cruz’s log cabin trailer, accompanied by an aroma of burning kiawe, ribs, pork shoulder and brisket she’s been told can be smelled a mile away. Smokey Ranch BBQ offers Texas-style, pit-smoked meat and fixings in Waimanalo on O‘ahu. God’s Country sure smells heavenly with Linae cooking in it.
“Most of the flavor of smoke is actually perceived through our smell,” she says. We understand how important the olfactory nerves are to our sense of flavor only in instances where we have a head cold or our nose is stuffed. Food just doesn’t taste the same. It takes a trifecta of information sent from our taste buds to the brain; physical and visual stimulation, such as how the food feels and looks, combines with our sense of smell to equal flavor in food. Moreover, our tongue can identify only sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savory) flavors, so when something tastes smoky to us, it is because it smells smoky to us.
“I think it’s important to note that smoke shouldn’t be considered an ingredient to a recipe. The ultimate goal is that perfect smoke ring when you cut into the meat. It’s kind of like cutting through a tree trunk. If done correctly, you’ll see a distinct array of rings with the outer layer sealing in the juices and flavors,” says Linae.
She feels that cooking food in this way will never go out of style or become outdated because it’s ingrained in our ancestral DNA. “I believe the smell of burning wood is associated with feasts and happy moments,” she says. “When we come together as people, food is an important element. We celebrate, we converse, we contemplate the world over food.”
ISLE OF FUEGO
One of the most diverse components of human cultures around the world is how we put food to fire. Chef Leo Antunez is an Uruguayan now living on Kaua`i with his own catering business. He remembers growing up with a country life, a fire pit inside his house, and discovering a passion for cooking as a child.
The parrilla is a South American barbecue but Chef Leo has adapted it to the flora and fauna of Kaua`i, burning guava and ironwood, grilling local meats and vegetables as often as possible. “A traditional parrilla starts with the gathering of wood, finding the best location, checking out the weather and the direction of the winds,” he explains. Once the fire is burning strong, a metal grill is set above the flames for half an hour to sanitize and prepare it for cooking. The grill is then removed, the fire itself is transferred to the side, and the grill is replaced on top of the hot coals. On goes the lamb, chicken, pork, vegetables, or, traditionally in Uruguay, the organs of the cow, known as chinchulines, served as an appetizer paired with homemade bread, wine and cheese.
The parrillero’s job is then to shovel more hot coals from the fire to under the parrilla, being sure to place them in a circle in order to evenly distribute the heat. This part requires attention, patience and “let[ting] the fire do its thing.” The process is repeated until the food is cooked to perfection.
“Manning the parrilla requires a lot of dedication and love,” says Chef Leo, “I am in love with fire, I really care for it. It can tell stories, the wood has different stories to tell. Fire used to be the T.V. of the people.”
AL FRESCO ONLY
Two invasive species, the Axis Deer and the Kiawe tree are a perfect match, just add fire. Chef Yeshua Goodman grew up cooking over fire while camping at La Perouse and in Hana on Maui. He now runs Kiawe Outdoor, holding open-flame cooking events on the island and beyond with menus centered around sustainably caught and invasive species. “If we can’t do it sustainably for the next generation then it goes against everything that Hawaiian culture is about,” he says.
The process of hunting a deer or catching a fish with a single line, of opting to eat canoe crops, utilizing an imu, or pounding kalo: these things are far from the easiest way to make a meal, rather, they exemplify cooking with deep intention.
“Cooking with open fire is universal, it really strikes a cord. For millennia, it was the only way to prepare a meal; somewhere in the last century we got away from it in favor of convenience and indoor cooking,” Chef Yeshua says. “The challenge of it is part of the beauty. Tell me I can’t pull off Michelin level food in a field and I’ll set out to do just that. But we do more than just cook with fire, we’re about the whole experience. When you cook over fire, surrounded by your friends and family on the side of a volcano in Maui, watching the sunset and sipping on great wine, the experience is unlike anything else.”
So while the origins of cooking with fire began with a human need for sustenance, it is now perhaps more of a wistful act, a social experience and open-air therapy. Fire demands we remain present and as we work with a powerful force of nature. Chef Yeshua knows firsthand, “There’s magic in the flames and it brings us back to a special place where the earth and the smoke season the food.” [eHI]