The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Friday, May 27, 2011

Memorial Day with Wood

My oldest son Charlie is headed back to the Army today. He graduated from Army Medic school in Texas two weeks ago, and he spent the last two weeks here at home catching up with his family and friends. It was nice to have him home again, even for the short time. The timing of his leaving, on Memorial Day weekend, and the day after eight more troops were killed in a blast in southern Afghanistan, caused me to reflect a little more than usual on the challenge he and his fellow soldiers are facing.

Charlie has been assigned to the Third Infantry Division, one that has a long and noted history. Since he expects to be deployed overseas shortly, and it may be a while before we see him again, I thought I'd cook some chickens for him and his friends on his last night in town. So I took off early yesterday, heated up the grill, and set to work.

Now, if you were raised in Texas, cooking chickens is a labor of love, and not to be hurried. First you get the fire going, then the chickens are prepared. Nice fat roasters, split in half, and leave the "good stuff" in there. Only a sissy cleans the insides of his chickens before he grills them. Ok, you can knock off the remaining little feathers if you're squeamish. But I like to leave all that good flavor right where it is, until it enters my mouth.

Now I use a "mop sauce" technique that is common in the German-American communities of central Texas. The mop sauce is a large pot of water and lemon juice, salt, pepper, onions, Worcestershire sauce, and one stick of butter if the wife is looking, and two if she's not. Set the pot in a corner or upper rack of your grill, and mop it on with a barbeque mop or basting brush every so often. The more often, the better, but be careful not to kill your coals.

Which brings us to the real key to a great barbeque...the charcoal. Now, some of you may think that to barbeque means to light your sanitary chrome gas grill and put on a couple of wimpy little burgers or hot dogs. Might as well eat off the truck, folks.

Most weekend grillers go to the grocery store and buy the blue-and-white or orange bags of densified sawdust known as charcoal briquets. Well, technically, that is a wood product...but years of messing with that stuff taught me that it is a poor substitute for the real thing.
Hardwood chunk charcoal, now that's the thing. The best brands I know of are made in Kentucky and Missouri, and are combinations of oak, maple, and hickory. And there is some great mesquite chunk charcoal coming out of Texas. If you can't get it, but love that mesquite flavor, you can usually find mesquite cooking chips to throw in the fire.

Chunk charcoal is the real thing. Makes a fire that's ready in about half the time of the briquettes (except those that are doused in petrochemicals and put off an odor like the local delivery truck...don't you love the taste of that!). What I really love is the way it crackles and smokes. Real fire for real cooking.

Charcoal like this has been made for hundreds of years. The Cowboy Charcoal Company of Albany, Kentucky has a great description of this process, as it was performed by the great-grandfather of the company's owners, on their website...
"In the early 1900's our great-grandfather was known to his fellow Southern Ohio residents as the community collier. A collier was an individual who burned charcoal. It was common in those days for farmers to cut and clear trees in developing their land. This wood would be stacked or placed in pits for burning into charcoal. This process was an art form, inexperienced burners would return to just a pile of ashes. [Our grandfather], the foremost authority on the subject, would make his rounds lighting and burning various farmer's piles. After several weeks of inspection and cooling, the farmers could sell the charcoal to local markets as a cash crop."
From Wikipedia...
Charcoal is the dark grey residue consisting of impure carbon obtained by removing water and other volatile constituents from animal and vegetation substances. Charcoal is usually produced by slow pyrolysis, the heating of wood or other substances in the absence of oxygen(see pyrolysischar and biochar). The resulting soft, brittle, lightweight, black, porous material resembles coal.... 
Historically, production of wood charcoal in districts where there is an abundance of wood dates back to a very ancient period, and generally consists of piling billets of wood on their ends so as to form a conical pile, openings being left at the bottom to admit air, with a central shaft to serve as a flue. The whole pile is covered with turf or moistened clay. The firing is begun at the bottom of the flue, and gradually spreads outwards and upwards. The success of the operation depends upon the rate of the combustion. Under average conditions, 100 parts of wood yield about 60 parts by volume, or 25 parts by weight, of charcoal; small scale production on the spot often yields only about 50%, large scale was efficient to about 90% even by the seventeenth century. The operation is so delicate that it was generally left to colliers (professional charcoal burners)."
Hardwood chunk charcoal. A great wood product that was almost lost to the passing of time, like so many other great traditions. But it's making a comeback these days...and you can help bring it back.

Before you fire up the grill this weekend,  go out and find a bag of hardwood chunk charcoal. (I find it locally at the Ace hardware store and Lowe's.) Fire it up and pop a cool refreshment. And then, as you sit mesmerized by the crackling of the coals, reflect on what made our country great, and the servicemen and women who served, and still serve, to protect our freedom and way of life.

Go wood this Memorial Day.

P.S. Charlie Becker contacted me to let me know of the charcoal science and production work that has been going on down at Virginia Tech for a long while. You can get info on that effort here...


Allie Clark said...

This is great writing Dad :) really.

Mike Messina said...

Great story. Good luck to Charlie.

Scott Weikert said...

Nice post Chuck. I need to learn how to make charcoal myself. I love cooking on my charcoal grill.
My brother-in-law is shipping out to Afghanistan in about 1 week or so. Air-force nurse but will be based with Army special forces unit. God bless all of our troops.