Since that first big-browed bozo threw a deer carcass in the flames of a lightning-struck tree and said “Mmmm, hair burn off ... this good ... no more venison tartare,” the conjunction of fire and food has been a welcome tradition.
There are pitfalls, of course.
Occasionally, the joining of fire and food produces a terrifying culinary experience; edibles get charred, a bit black around the edges, and the enjoyment index tails off dramatically.
This happens most often at the typical backyard barbecue.
Especially when sausages hit the grill.
It takes a maestro to walk the tightrope when a batch of bratwurst begins to explode and drain.
My friend Jack is just such a master — a sensei of sausage. When Jack works a grill loaded with grease-leaking brats, the plump beauties spit their volatile fuel on the heat source below and the fire storm that results is so intense it creates its own weather system. But somehow Jack emerges from the cloud of dense, oily smoke with a platter full of oh-so-right links, a huge smile creasing his smudged mug. Jack is from South Dakota. He understands pork; he is undeterred by a grease fire.
Some folks don’t have the nerve to tread a path where the introduction of wildfire threatens not only the meal but homes and neighborhoods as well. I have no respect for these people.
I see plenty of them in food magazines.
I like to peruse cooking magazines. I don’t have subscriptions. I don’t buy these publications. I scan the salutes to pretense at the grocery store, attempting to gather as much info as possible before I notice the store manager at the end of the aisle, arms crossed, a scowl on his face.
Each issue presents at least one feature where a posse of beautiful people gather at someone’s spacious digs to eat a meal that took at least seven hours to prepare at a cost somewhere in the range of $1,000 for a party of eight. These people are unwrinkled, they propose grandiose toasts, and they smile big, theatrical “I’ve spent a fortune at the dentist” smiles. There is no spinach stuck between teeth, and there is never a report of an unmanageable fire at the site of the party. No one suffers grease burns. No one is from South Dakota.
If you ever meet one of these effete, flameless geeks, punch him or her, for me.
Their parties are very unlike a party I once attended where fire was the headline act; where there was nerve, where there was flair, where there was derring-do. Fire and food met, and fire won.
It was the “Greatest Fondue Party in History.”
The party was organized by my friend, Fred. Freddie had emerged from the army the year before and had thrown himself headlong into the task of producing events that united disparate elements of society.
Freddie worked his cross-cultural magic with food. He threw frequent dinners to which he invited friends from his oh-so-Italian/American childhood (most of whom dressed in black), jazz musicians, hippies (when and if they were able to successfully follow directions to the site of the party), political extremists from both ends of the spectrum, artists and writers, and people who carried guns under the seats in their cars.
Feasts took place at Fred’s family “compound” in Lakewood with guests gathering in the huge back yard in temperate weather, or in a large open room in the basement: the party room.
Generally, the fare was something close to Fred’s heart and genes — something Italian-American, something simmered for hours. Sauces. Pasta, and plenty of it. Wine from a family-owned liquor distributorship. Meats from grandpa’s market. Fish from a company owned by a cousin.
Then, the fondue craze hit America. Open flame made the scene.
Prior to that time, you had to take a trip to an obscure Swiss village or spend an evening at a bizarre little boite in a ski town to experience fondue. Suddenly, there were fondue pots and sterno cookers on the shelves of every department store in the U.S. Some moron in the marketing biz did a good job, cracked the consumer whip, and middle America lined up to purchase gallons of cheap cooking oil.
Freddie was not immune. He was a slave to fashion.
The fondue party was to be held in the party room. It would be the ultimate with-it gathering.
Hoo boy, the party room was a sight: the room was full of round tables, each table surrounded by chairs, each table draped with a checked tablecloth, each table sporting two fondue pots (avocado, gold, copper, yellow or red), one pot full of oil and the other full of molten cheese, each pot sitting above a blazing heat source. The lights in the room were turned down and the glow from the sterno-fueled burners beckoned an otherworldly blue welcome to the diners.
Guests took their seats. Contrary to Freddie’s universalist intent, each social group captured its own table.
One table was occupied by guys dressed in black and women with lots of jewelry and very large hair.
At another table sat the jazz musicians; they wore dark glasses and tapped rhythms on the edge of the table to accompany the melodies that ran through their heads. (The odd thing is, they all appeared to hear the same melody!)
A couple of the hippies had their noggins down on their table — resting, meditating, doing whatever they did during those refreshing little breaks in their journey down the stream of consciousness.
The artists and writers sat around their table and pouted and griped because none of them produced anything marketable and they were “misunderstood.”
Politicos argued once they were seated, the turmoil peaking when an SDS organizer made fun of a Young Republican’s wingtips.
Freddie brought out platters loaded with cubed meats, chopped veggies and hunks of bread, and he urged everyone to pick up long fondue forks and begin deep frying their dinners.
Everything went well, for a while.
Until Wanda lost control.
Wanda was one of the hippies and she was a striking sight: Wanda’s body mass was (how shall we say this delicately?) ... oddly distributed ... so she wrapped herself in billowing bright-colored clothes and various long and exotically decorated scarves. She arrived at the party with her boyfriend, Gordon, seated in the passenger seat of a rattletrap MG-TC, the scarves flagging out behind the puttering British monster, Wanda a not-yet strangled and poorly balanced Isadora Duncan, the queen of the Monarch butterflies.
Once in the party room, Wanda found her mates attempting to put pieces of, like, you know man, vegetables and bread (no meat, please) on these weird looking far out long things with, like, sharp things on the end. It was so cool, man. It was so freaky. They were sticking the stuff down in these, like, hot things on the table, man. Wow.
So, Wanda, followed suit.
She successfully loaded a huge amount of vegetable matter on her fork, but she was mildly disoriented and failed to establish a solid physical base to compensate for her balance problem. She aimed her weird looking far out thing with, like, sharp things on the end, at the fondue pot full of hot oil, man. Had she managed to connect, this would have produced the tastiest morsel of the evening.
Wanda did not connect.
The reason Wanda did not connect? It was 1967, for Pete’s sake! For many people in the ’60s, including Wanda, accurate spatial perception was the last thing necessary for a satisfying life. Couple that with the aforementioned unique distribution of body mass and ...
Wanda missed the fondue pot by five inches. Her weird looking far out thing with, like, sharp things on the end, plunged past the receptacle and caught the fashionable checked tablecloth with one of those far out sharp things, man. Propelled by some serious momentum, Wanda skidded across the top of the table, carrying the fashionable checked tablecloth with her, upsetting the pot of oil.
And the blazing sterno burner.
Wanda scurried to safety as the inferno worked its way across the surface of the table. A couple of her pals sat immobile, transfixed by the incredible colors in the flames.
Others at the party did not react as well.
Being high-strung by nature, the politicos leaped as one to their feet, upsetting the table and starting a blaze on the floor. Each loudly accused the others of responsibility for the fire.
Several of the gals with huge hair started screaming and ran to the periphery of the room, clutching their temples with long-nailed fingers, chased by disgruntled and angry black-clad Mediterranean paramours, the developing crisis producing quarts of adrenalin and inspiring thoughts of violence.
Artists and writers pondered the irony of a premature end to life — before an insensitive world could awaken and acknowledge their enormous talents.
The jazz musicians upped the tempo as the fire began to produce significant smoke.
Freddie ran from the kitchen with a pan full of water.
Freddie learned something important that night: specifically, that water poured on burning oil does not always extinguish the flame — it spreads the burning fat more efficiently.
He should have used the molten cheese.
Members of the Lakewood fire department understood the principle.
A few of us stayed outside the building as the firemen did their work. We watched the MG sputter down the driveway, Wanda’s scarves fluttering in the air behind it.
We accompanied Freddie to the basement when we got the all-clear. There was quite a bit of water on the floor, with little bits of fruit and veggies bobbing on the surface. It was pathetic.
The smoke damage was less than expected — some of the bullfight posters were lost for sure, but a thorough cleaning, a new carpet and a fresh coat of paint would return the party room to fighting prime.
But there would be no returning Freddie to his glory. The event squelched his desire to entertain; he gave up his “hands across the sea” sociological experiment. He retired as the Toots Shore of the underground to devote his energies to running a “bill collection agency” for his uncle, Big Ralph, and it wasn’t until 1978 that he hosted another dinner party.
You can be sure of two things: Wanda was not invited, and there was no open flame.
But, don’t be deterred when it comes to joining food and fire. Just steer clear of strangely-shaped hippies and fondue pots. There is room for a pyromaniacal soul in cooking; on occasion, great food actually involves setting something on fire.
This happens when spirits are used and flame quickly exhausts the alcohol, leaving the flavor of the spirit behind.
There are, for example, several notable desserts to which flame is applied. The essence of a schlocky restaurant is a mess of Cherries Jubilee set ablaze tableside by an inept waiter. It’s more fun than the carnival.
In the kitchen, the fond left in a pan by a piece of cooked meat is sometimes doused with a small measure of spirits and the mix is set ablaze. A bit of stock is then added, the liquid in the pan is reduced, some butter and herbage introduced and the sauce poured over the rested meat just before it is served.
Here’s one to try,
Get yourself a nice hunk of beef tenderloin — half a pound per person is good. Go for a fairly thin medallion, 1 1/2 inches at the most. Pound it out a bit thinner than that.
Rub the meat with coarse-ground black pepper and some crushed garlic and let it sit for a while.
Sauté thinly sliced onion in olive oil in a heavy pan, over medium-low heat, until golden. Remove the onions to a bowl and cover.
Wipe the pan and put on high heat. Add a small amount of olive oil, enough to coat the bottom of the pan.
When the oil begins to smoke add the meat and sear quickly — perhaps two minutes. Turn and sear the other side of the steak.
Deglaze the pan thoroughly with a small amount of beef stock. When the stock is reduced, add half a jigger or so of cognac and set the liquid in the pan on fire. Take care with your eyebrows.
Whooweee. Freak out on the intense colors in the flames. The last time I did this, I saw the images of Janis Joplin and Hitler in the flames.
Remove the meat to a plate and tent with foil.
Add more beef stock, so there is approximately 1 1/2 cups of liquid in the pan. If you have some veal demi-glace, add a tablespoon or so to the stock (you do have the demi-glace, don’t you?). Reduce over high heat by more than two-thirds. Add three or four cloves minced garlic and mix in a tablespoon or so of stone ground mustard. Turn the heat to medium low.
Add the onions (and any juices from meat left on the plate). Simmer covered for a few moments.
At the last minute, add some heavy cream and a pat of butter. When the butter melts, top the meat with a bit of onion and sauce. Serve with a sprinkling of chopped parsley and the remaining sauce on the side.
Just in case there is trouble, keep a pot of molten cheese handy. If the flames get out of hand, man, like wow, you know what to do.