With the advent of the summer grilling season, this seems like a good time to discuss cooking outside versus indoors. One cool, dark evening, my wife and I were finishing off some pork chops that had been broiled in the oven in our gas range. We started talking about the differences in the way we cook things versus how things were cooked when we were growing up.
The era when we grew up, supper was generally meat and potatoes, maybe with bread and raw carrots. Pork chops, ham and sometimes chicken was fried in a frying pan. Hamburger patties were also fried in a frying pan. Bacon grease and shortening were used for frying. Hot dogs were boiled or scorched over a fire. According to my doctor, none of this was a very good idea. Mom did roast chicken, beef and pork in the oven, which was much less greasy.
In the 1960s, my dad obtained an inexpensive charcoal grill and began cooking cheap steak and hamburger over charcoal. There seemed to be only one way to cook this stuff, which was what many call “well done” and could really give your jaw muscles a workout. Occasionally, Dad would brag about how cheap a hunk of steak was, but the clue was apparent in that you could hardly cut it. My palate was not very sophisticated, and I was okay with eating hot dogs or marshmallows charred over burning leaves and scrap wood, so what did I know? Eventually, Dad got one of those little cast iron Hibachi grills at a garage sale and eased up on the “doneness” of the meat. In the late ‘60s, my dad also improvised a sort of a brazier to burn scrap pieces of lumber to roast hot dogs and marshmallows. The improvement in flavor from boiling and frying to roasting and char-broiling was indescribable! The other change was when I discovered “medium” instead of “well done.”
Stepping well back in time, my grandmother would have never cooked food over an open fire, except back when she and her younger brother did so as children in the early 1900s. In fact, when my dad caught a snowshoe hare in the late 1920s, his mother refused to cook it with her modern wood-fired range. Dad was very proud of trapping the critter but was disappointed that he wouldn’t get to eat it. But then his uncle dressed the hare out and skinned it, and his grandmother cooked it up for him with home-made baking-powder biscuits! He said it was one of the best meals he ever had. Dad’s grandma was born in 1874 and probably knew a lot about frontier cooking of wild game. My mom’s mother would build a cooking fire to fix dinner and never give it a second thought, having done tent camping in the 1920s and before.
I used a stamped-out sheet metal charcoal grill for a long time then learned a lot about cooking over an open fire while involved with historical re-enacting starting from in the mid-1980s. A metal grate supported over a fire in a hole in the ground works for cooking with a griddle or frying pan, roasting in a Dutch oven, and for broiling steak, hamburger, chicken, or pork chops. It takes some practice to get the coals just right so you don’t get the meat burnt or sooty, but if you season it right and don’t burn it, the taste is excellent! You can even roast ears of corn in the husks without soaking it in water if you are careful. Ultimately, I re-made the improvised brazier that my dad rigged up 50-some years ago (out of a piece of a stove) using a stand that my son made in metal shop in high school on top of a concrete paver base I made. It’s awfully rustic, but I think Dad might still ask, “Did you have to spend the money on those landscape bricks?
We use the outdoor fireplace pretty often when there is no snow and occasionally when there is. I suppose I have relearned things that my great-great grandparents knew as an everyday activity traveling to or from somewhere.
There are some very sophisticated outdoor grills that operate on propane or natural gas, but the experience of building a fire so it’s just right for cooking and then grilling up supper on it is satisfying and unique.
It’s fun and rewarding to know how to do things that not many other people know, but then to be able to tell and teach a little about it is a great experience!
Gerald Wollum is a guest columnist. He is a history buff from Red Top and Coon Rapids.