My good friend from many years ago, Judy Busch, a wonder in the kitchen, a wonder in all places and all ways, read herself to sleep at night with cookbooks, the one thing she did that I didn’t quite get, although my wife Margi picked up the habit very quickly, soon lugging heavy tomes to bed herself. But I’m finally catching on many years later because of Paula Marcoux’s Cooking with Fire. When I’m too tired to read Proust but am not ready to turn out the light, I now have a way of being productive, learning how to build a fire for cooking, bake bread under ashes, roast on a string, and bake naan in a tannur; also, where to find the tannur—a section of steel pipe is easily repurposed (I assume there is not much waste in Marcoux’s world)—as well as how to fire it. There is one chapter I shouldn’t read if I want to sleep, the chapter about griddling, the ubiquitous griddle becoming the essential item in the “wood-fired batterie de cuisine” (I found mine off the Long Trail between the Middlebury and Brandon Gaps, abandoned by a hiker too tired to remember Aldo Leopold’s lessons), with which I can produce pita, shrak, and boreks (a “sprawling” family, Marcoux says, the world so much richer than I imagined), pancakes and tortillos, even the humble cracker.
This book is for people who realize that slow food is the only food, that time is the essential ingredient when we set out to make good and handsome things, that working in a kitchen is often the most social of experiences and sitting around a table the most communal (cf. Babette’s Feast). But the book will appeal to another type, the type who appreciates useful things, useful and simple (as opposed to the computer chip), who like reading about clay and cast iron pots—small miracles: relatively easy to make and inexpensive and yet bringing such pleasures into our lives, not just in the food that comes out of them but in their very use, how we work with them. The chapter on “retained heat,” which includes instruction for building a wood-fired masonry oven, is maybe going to change my life, my dream of baking bread and pizza with fire and wood a little closer to realization (by the way, be sure to take in the short section in the book on natural leavening).
So it’s midnight and I’m thinking about salt-roasted new potatoes, mushroom borek, chive pancakes, and Gaetano’s fried pizza. Is this smart. Probably not. But it is fun.
Wood is beautiful, when it’s still a tree, of course, swirling into the sky, when it’s turned into something useful and pleasing to the eye, a bowl, table, cabinet. Frost too amazes with wood when his characters swing in a birch or split with an axe. But after reading Marcoux how much more to appreciate about wood.
Read this book. And meet Marcoux at BigTown Gallery on August 13th, where she’ll demonstrate that food cooked with fire is not like any food you’ve ever tasted.