My uncle Menahem taught me how to make a wood fire – and grill steaks on it

We’ve talked about how to light charcoal barbecues, with chimneys and lighter fluid and fan devices. But the really natural way to make a fire is with wood.

I remember one time, my uncle Menahem did an outdoor grill in the park for four adults and five teens and tweens (12-16) with nothing more than a hunting knife and a food grate that he had brought with him from home. If he had wanted to, he could have managed without the food grate. He was a military man and was quite comfortable roughing it, Spartan style. (He was also a technical wizard and could improvise practically everything out of practically anything.)

But he realized that the ladies present (my sisters and mother, his wife and daughter) would prefer something more civilized. Suspending beefsteaks over a fire, with a forked twig, might have worked fine for boy scouts in the days before home computers and videogames. But as a gallant knight, he would never have dreamed of subjecting the ladies to such barbarism.

Also, I suppose, the fact that it was nine hungry people and we’d have to wait until the fire was ready and in a fit state for cooking, meant that he wanted at least the final stage of the process to be as speedy and painless as possible. A grill rack meant that he could cook the steaks in two batches at the most.

So how did he do it?

Well he started by using the hunting knife to dig a rectangular pit for the fire. Rectangular? This was was to match the shape of the oven grill rack that he had brought along with him. The pit itself was shallow on the windward side and deeper on the leeward side. This was to funnel the wind into the fire to feed the flames without extinguishing it.

While he was digging the pit, he sent us kids off to gather wood from the surrounding brush and scrub. This was to be brought back and put into four piles. One pile was thin twigs to be used as kindling. The next was for thicker twigs, to be used once the small twigs were burning. The third pile was for thick lumps of wood or branches. He specified - several times, just in case we didn’t get the message - that it must be not only deadwood but dry wood. Otherwise it wouldn’t burn and might even stifle the fire that was already burning.

The fourth pile was for pine cones. His daughter, my cousin, explained to me that this was to help the fire burn until the thick wood caught the flame, because it was the thick wood that did the actual cooking of the meat. She added that the pine cones also imparted a sweet smell to the fire.

Anyway, once we had gathered the wood there was nothing better to do but stand around and watch while uncle Menahem lit the fire. He set up the small twigs first, then the medium sized ones. The big lumps and cones he kept in reserve.

Then he took a single twig and made a series of vertical cuts into the wood, all around. When this was done, he “shaved” the wood horizontally as if he were peeling off the outer layer. Because of the vertical incisions that he had already made, this created a series of “feathers” coming off the wood, but not completely detached. He did this with another three, so that he had four of these twigs, which he told me were called “fuzz sticks”.

He proceeded to light the fuzz sticks and they caught the flame surprisingly easily - although with hindsight, there should have been nothing surprising about it. The thin, wispy, hairy slivers burned quickly, conveying the flame to the thicker (but still thin) twig. He then inserted the now burning fuzz sticks into strategic locations in the pile of kindling, which he had built into a Native American “teepee” like arrangement.


How to make a wood fire

This set the kindling nicely aflame and pretty soon he was adding middle-size and then larger pieces of wood, being careful not to quench the fire by adding too much at a time. After a while, watching the fire catch the bigger pieces became boring and by then we were growing restless - not to say, hungry!

So he sent us kids on a wild goose chase to gather more cones, even though we had plenty already. Well, at least it gave us something to do and by that stage we were desperately hungry so we really needed something to distract us. Pretty soon we realized we had been “had” as there were far too many cones. But we at least were given the privilege of throwing a few of those cones onto the fire before Menahem called time and told us that now we simply had to wait.

“Wait for what?” I asked in my adolescent naivete. I could see that the fire was nicely raging. Surely now was the perfect time to cook the steaks.

It was Menahem’s son, my cousin Avi, who explained to me that we had to wait until the fire subsided to glowing red-hot embers before we could cook the steaks. I should explain that I was only thirteen at the time, and because I had grown up on a tough council estate (what our American friends would call the “Projects”) I was very much a townie and didn’t have a clue about outdoor cooking - or indeed the outdoor life in general. Much to my regret (now) I had never actually been a boy scout. In my youth, I was too much of an individualist to join a group and in any case I preferred my creature comforts like watching television to climbing trees or sleeping in a tent.

Anyway, to get back to the story, we sang songs - almost as if we were boy scouts and girl guides - and kept ourselves amused any way we could, until the fire was ready. Then Menahem laid the food grate across the pit and started putting on the steaks. He had already rubbed sea salt and pepper onto them, while we were all singing and trying to stave off the hunger.

A few minutes each side on the fire and they were done, ready to be eaten, or rather devoured, in pita bread, with a side order of potato salad. But the charcoal carried on glowing red hot for a couple of hours at least and we could probably have cooked a large joint on it if we had been ready to wait and alert enough to keep turning it over to stop it burning


How to make a wood fire

Anyway the point of this story isn’t about the food, it’s about how easy it is to start a campfire, or outdoor cooking fire, once you know what you’re doing. And of course, you don’t have to cook directly on the fire. You can use this method to start a fire for a potjie or a Dutch oven. And if you’re using an outdoor, portable barbecue or grill, like the La Hacienda (see our Best BBQs for 2017), and want to use natural wood instead of charcoal, you can also use this method. Not only will it save you the money you’d spend on the wood, it will also save you having to lug the wood about.

By using local materials, you save yourself the burden of carrying and you have more of an adventure. That’s especially good fun if you’ve got kids. I can’t guarantee it, in this age of pushing buttons and tapping touchscreens, but they’ll probably love it.

So let’s review the key points of preparing and starting an outdoor wood fire:

● Gather wood that is not only dead but also dry
● Split the wood into three piles according to thickness (not length)
● Optionally gather some pine cones to add to the fire once it is kindled, but before it subsides to red-hot embers
● If you’re digging a shallow fire pit, dig it deeper on the leeward side and shallower on the windward side.
● Make sure that your fire pit matches the shape of the means by which you’ll be cooking (rectangular for a grill rack, round for a potjie, etc).
● If you’re bringing kids along, bring something to distract them, so they don’t get restless.
● If they’re very young, maybe bring some cold food snacks that they can much on in the meantime.
● Don’t put the food on the fire until the fire has subsided to smoldering charcoal
Oh and one thing we forgot to mention: make sure the fire is thoroughly EXTINGUISHED before you leave!

So that's it really. You just need the right tools. Of course, you’ll still have to bring the food along, unless you’re into hunting or fishing. But that’s another story!

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