Burnday dinner

I now understand why places are called “the sticks.” It’s not because people drive pick-ups or own shotguns or marry cousins. It’s because the places themselves are full to bursting with actual, genuine sticks.

Sticks come in many forms. When they’re lying on the ground, detached from their plant of origin, they’re called “sticks.” When they’re still attached to trees, they’re called “limbs.” When they’re growing straight out of the ground, they’re called “brush.” In the constant battle to prevent your land from reverting to its natural state, you have to spend a good portion of your leisure time picking up sticks, lopping off limbs, and pulling out brush.

The natural result of this is that you end up with a huge pile of sticks, which you have to get rid of, somehow.

In New York, there were only two ways to get rid of something. You could throw in the garbage, or you could give it to Goodwill. Unfortunately, neither of these ways works for a pile of sticks as big as a yurt. Fortunately, here in the sticks there is a Third Way.

The Burning of the Sticks is rural ritual as integral to country life as the Shooting of the Varmints, the Putting-up of the Tomatoes, or the Removing of the Dead Mice from the Basement. To a life-long urbanite, though, it was a revelation.

“You mean we have a bonfire?” I asked Kevin, “In our yard?”

Kevin assured me that this is standard operating procedure in the sticks – once you procure the necessary burn permit and wait for a day when burning is allowed, of course.

Last year, we did all that, and had a bonfire. In our yard! As I watched the flames leaping fifteen feet in the air, I couldn’t help but think that it was a waste of a good fire. At the time, energy prices were at their peak, and it seemed perverse to be generating bazillions of BTUs without cooking anything with them.

This year, in between picking up sticks, lopping off limbs, and pulling out brush, I said to Kevin, “When we burn this, do you think we can cook in the fire?”

Kevin, who is an enthusiastic proponent of anything involving an open flame or, come to think of it, danger of any kind, thought we could. We started planning.

My first thought was a makeshift grill on the upwind side of the bonfire, but Kevin thought this impractical, both because we would need very, very long tongs and because one gust of wind can turn the upwind side to the downwind side, which would render our food inaccessible. Or incinerate it. Or, quite possibly, both.

“Well, once it’s incinerated, we don’t need to access it anyway,” I said, but this didn’t seem like much of an argument.

Plan B was a hole in the ground.

We read up on pit cooking, and discovered that it’s been used to turn animals into meals almost since the beginning of time. The first attempts probably involved woolly mammoth or saber-toothed tiger. Our attempt involved a leg of lamb, but it was just as primitive as its Paleolithic precursors.

The procedure is straightforward (hey, a caveman could do it). Dig a hole. Put a bunch of rocks in the bottom. Burn your sticks in the hole. When you have very hot rocks and a bed of embers, put your food (well-wrapped in aluminum foil, our sole concession to modernity) in the hole. Arrange the hot rocks around the food, and then cover the whole arrangement with dirt and sand, which smother the fire but retain all the heat in the hot stones and embers. Come back six hours later and dig up your dinner.

That was our plan, at any rate, and we built our menu around it. The centerpiece was the leg of lamb, coated with olive oil, rosemary, sea salt, and garlic. We also wanted to have sweet potatoes, a pot of baked beans, and baked apples for dessert.

We followed the procedure to the letter. The only tricky part was the baked beans, which we put in a cast-iron pot with a lid. I was afraid of getting sand in the pot, so I put a layer of aluminum foil between the pot and the lid. I was also a little worried that the beans wouldn’t cook through, so I decided to heat the pot on the embers for a while before we buried everything. The cast iron, I figured, would act like the stones and contribute to the cooking power of the fire.

Once the pot was hot, Kevin made a hollow in the hot rocks for the lamb. (A clam rake is an excellent utensil for this.) We put the lamb in the pit, surrounded by the sweet potatoes. We put the beans off to one side. The apples, I planned to put in the pit after we got everything else out, so they could cook while we ate.

We arranged the rocks around and over the food, and buried the whole thing. (We used straw as an insulator between the food and the sand, but it was a bad choice – it incinerated immediately. Seaweed would work, but we’re not convinced you need anything at all. Just pile on dirt and sand.)

We ended up with what looked like a patch of sand on the ground. There were a couple of places where smoke was escaping, and we piled more sand in those spots until the whole thing seemed airtight. Then we went away.

It was a little strange, going about our business while our dinner cooked – or didn’t – in a hole in our yard. We speculated endlessly about what we would dig up.

“The beans could be crunchy and the lamb could be hard and dry,” I said.

“It seems like a long time to cook sweet potatoes,” said Kevin.

In other words, we weren’t at all confident this would work. That didn’t stop us, of course, from inviting guests. We figured the worst-case scenario was take-out Chinese.

Our friends Jane and Greg thought burn day dinner was a fine idea, and they signed up. So did our friend Florence (although her husband, David, had an out-of-town engagement … hmmm). They all convened at our house in the late afternoon.

The first thing we did was open the wine, on the assumption it would help smooth over any rough spots in the dinner. After we’d all had a glass or two, we went out to the pit with plates.

Kevin and I donned fireproof gloves and dug into the sand. We found almost everything – one sweet potato went missing. We put in the apples, and covered them up. After shaking off as much sand as we could, and brought everything into the house.

Kevin, to great fanfare, unwrapped the lamb. To our astonishment, it was perfect. It fell off the bone, moist and flavorful. To somewhat less fanfare, I uncovered the beans. To our astonishment, they were also perfect (although I had to drain off a little liquid). The sweet potatoes had almost a mousse-like texture, soft and creamy.

The only rough spot was the apples. There wasn’t enough residual heat in the pit, and I had to finish them in the oven. Let that be the worst dinner-party disaster I face this year.

Our method was such a surprising success that we’re planning a pig roast for the summer. The only problem is that burn season ends May 1, so we’ll have to talk to the fire department about what’s allowed and what’s not. Meantime, I hope anyone with a stick supply and a burn permit will grab a shovel and cook something.

I wonder if this will catch on.

9 people are having a conversation about “Burnday dinner

  1. I understand that in Papua New Guinea most families don’t even own a pot and pit cooking as you describe here is their preferred method. Then again, Lespinasse is undoubtedly not threatened by the bushman cuisine.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Eileen Corrado (neelie) says:

    Hi guys…been following the blog and getting inspiration to get back to the outdoors…the dinner sounded great…keep it going!

  3. Neelie! Glad to have you visit. By all means, get outdoors. I can see you and Bobby making dinner in a pit in the wilds of New Jersey …

  4. Marilyn Baker says:

    I’ve heard of rocks exploding in fire pits. Did you use anything special?

    Lots of Cubans here roast pigs for various holidays and I’m told it takes a looooooooooooooong time. Plan accordingly.

    And consider a dessert of roasted marshmallows — more good use of sticks.

  5. Marilyn — We’ve also heard of rocks exploding in fire pits, and we kept our distance. I understand that, if there’s moisture trapped in the rock, heating it can build up enough pressure to blow the thing to smithereens. Although we didn’t use anything special — just rocks from our land and our lake — we didn’t have any explosions.

    We did consider the marshmallows, and s’mores as well (your point about the good use of sticks is well-taken). The trouble is, the fire is long gone by the time dinner is served. Next time, I’m putting the apples in with everything else.

  6. Wait’ll you get to clambakes–lobsters, clams, corn, potatoes–yum! We used to do them in a big drum with layers of seaweed in a deep pit fire.
    I thought of you guys yesterday as I was trying the new fancy pizza place in my neighborhood–thin crusts and toppings like yours, but not nearly as good.
    Deep pit pizza?

  7. Hi Guys, So glad to read about your latest adventures. I couldn’t access the site until today. And what a surprise to see Don’s eye doctor enjoying your “cook-out”!!! He’s a great guy. Don’t know Jane. Anyway…as to a pig roast..some friends of ours on Middle Pond have done it in the summer…so it is allowable. Am sure you will succeed although I see you guys more with a clambake than a pig roast in summer.

    As to gardening..isn’t the dump wonderful. We don’t have a trailer so we often line the back of our Rav with tarp and shovel away. Mostly for our sister because we make our own soil from compost and it’s GREAT!!

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