Maybe it’s another movement to get back to nature in our otherwise hurried everyday lives, but there’s no question that outdoor cooking is back in style, and you don’t have to be on a camping trip to enjoy it. Options abound, with classic and modern gadgets that cater to the outdoor gourmet. Whether it’s on top of a flaming grill, over an open pit, or in an enclosed smoker, there’s no better way to get back to the simpler times before fully equipped kitchens were a part of every home.
Certainly, the most popular foray into nature’s kitchen is with the grill. Some take the clean and effortless approach and head straight for the propane, while others prefer the rough-and-tumble pleasure of building a fire with coals or wood. Either way, while a man’s best friend might be a dog, his best culinary toy is his most definitely his grill. The smells evoked as flames char fresh meats or vegetables is one that can’t be replicated by any combination of herbs, seasonings, or biogenetics. It’s simply the art of controlling an unruly fire so that it sears in the natural juices of your cut, while creating a dark golden flavorful crust on the outside. And as well as it seasons, the grill is even simpler to use.
Throw a pot over those open flames and soon even more options abound. In the South, this is known as a “low-country boil.” Up North, families gather beach-side for the favored clam bake. Either way, it’s all about getting a group together and filling the jumbo-sized pot with enough food for everyone. This rustic cooking method encourages all of the ingredients to meld together, steeping one another in a variety of flavors that become one. With food this good, there’s no need to jazz up these occasions with fancy plates or linens. Southerners line tables with newspaper to host the contents of the spilled pot, so that guests can forage for their favorites. New Englanders still usually rely on plates, but not anything special, as the family-style service is part of the occasion.
For some, outdoor cuisine begins in the smoker, seasoning and cooking meats simultaneously. Smoldering woodchips, ignited by low flames, are loosely covered to keep the smoky flavors inside the unit until they infuse into the meat for hours, and sometimes days. This takes patience, but even in our hectic fast-paced society there are still plenty of passionate cooks who are keeping the art very alive, specializing in corn cob-smoked hams in Vermont, mesquite turkey in the Southwest, and cherry wood-smoked trout near the rivers of Idaho. Once you’ve tasted the salty complexity of these delicacies, it’s likely you’ll thank them. Those without a standard smoker may enjoy this pleasure on their own by burning wood chips over low grill flames and tenting it with tin foil. As the meat is cooking, break out that favorite novel and keep reading–it’ll be a few hours before you eat.
There are countless other modes to test your outdoor cooking capacity, most of which were originally practiced in the name of necessity, not culinary artistry. Today we are privileged with the advantages of indoor plumbing and gas or electric stoves that make cooking indoors an easy option, but not necessarily the most exciting one. Next time, take it to the backyard, the park, or the beach and stoke up the flames. With the comforts of life’s essentials–food, fire, and friendships–waiting for you, you can most definitely leave the convenience of running water behind for a day.