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Hearth & Home August 2018

Paula Marcoux, culinary archeologist.
Photo COURTESY: ©2018 Marie Pelletier.

Culinary Historian

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Paula Marcoux, culinary archeologist and authority on live-fire cooking, explains how the past is prologue to this hot trend.

Paula Marcoux does not own a microwave, or a gas grill. In fact, she owns very little of the “modern” equipment most contemporary cooks would consider ordinary and essential. She does, however, have nearly a dozen unconventional – some might say, peculiar – apparatuses for cooking outdoors in her backyard, including several types of mud ovens, a Middle-Eastern-style tannur, and a German-style Schwenker suspended from a tripod over an in-ground, rock-lined fire pit. Most are either handmade or jerry-rigged; all are wood-fired.

That is by design. Marcoux is a culinary historian, archeologist, and authority on live-fire cooking, and her appliances and cooking techniques are rooted in the past. But she insists that, rather than being outmoded, these ancient cooking methods and time-honored contraptions are on trend and experiencing a renaissance today.

Photos COURTESY: ©2018 Marie Pelletier.

According to Marcoux, a desire to connect to traditional, authentic culinary experiences is fueling consumers’ growing infatuation with live-fire cooking. “People want to understand and have a tactile relationship with the basic and important processes of life,” she says. “They have a hunger to get back to simple things. A lot of people haven’t really learned how to cook as they did in the past, but the pendulum is swinging back. People want to learn more skills and understand every aspect of cooking. They want to understand where food comes from and want it to be as minimally processed as possible.

“That’s why they’re interested in farmers’ markets and farm-to-table restaurants. This trend is happening across many kinds of pursuits, not just culinary; for example, Green building and textiles. Live-fire cooking is part of this movement. A lot of people are interested in live-fire techniques because of how basic and simple this type of cooking can be.”

Marcoux’s own interest in the subject started when she was an archeology student at Brown University. Her studies took her to Israel, Jordan, and other far-flung places where she worked on excavations of mud ovens and other ancient cooking vessels and utensils. During extensive travels throughout the Middle East, she became fascinated with the archeology of cooking, particularly how Turkish, Bedouin, and Kurdish people cook with small fires and simple, clay cooking vessels.

For someone who already had an innate love of food – Marcoux says she has cooked since childhood and grew up in a food-centered family that was always talking about their next meal – the experience sparked a keen interest in how people cooked in the past.

She never imagined she could merge her two passions until she started working at Plimoth Plantation, a living-history museum that authentically recreates the settlement established by the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Here, as a costumed interpreter, Marcoux was cast as a servant or a woman of the house, whose duties, accurate for the time, included raising and preparing food, and building houses and cooking ovens with clay, using a method called daubing.

“The work attracted me because it gave me permission to recreate food and cooking of the past, and because I could work on building clay ovens,” she recalls.

During her 22 years at Plimoth Plantation, Marcoux researched food, food preparation, and cooking ovens of the period, so she and other museum interpreters could portray them accurately. She even examined 17th century paintings and scoured period cookbooks for details about the foods, cooking techniques, and implements used during the time. “Food is completely intermeshed with the history, economy, and day-to-day life of the people. It provides a window into the time.”

As her expertise developed, Marcoux became an in-demand consultant on period films, including a documentary about Thanksgiving, and another involving witchcraft, for which she advised the filmmakers on historically accurate live-fire cooking. She was the focus of a segment on the television cooking series “Man Fire Food,” demonstrating various methods of live-fire cooking with host Roger Mooking.

Paula Marcoux costumed as a woman of the house at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Photo COURTESY: ©2018 Plimouth Plantation, INC., TED CURTIN PHOTOGRAPHER.

She has even appeared on Vice TV’s cult hit “Huang’s World,” where she discussed food and identity in early New England while preparing “Plimoth Succotash,” a dish with hominy, greens, turnip, potatoes, and chicken that she calls “Pilgrim comfort food.” The stew was served at the first Thanksgiving and is also traditionally served on Forefathers Day, an annual holiday held on December 22 in Plymouth, Massachusetts to commemorate the date the English colonists first landed there.

Marcoux has blogged about the history of kebabs, a technique that traces back thousands of years to Central Asia, referencing a pair of 3,700-year-old, pottery kebab holders that were unearthed from Akrotiri, an ancient archeological site on the Greek island of Santorini.

She also did a deep-dive into early 17th century, wood-fired masonry ovens for a paper she wrote for the Society of Post-Medieval Archaeology. During the research process, she constructed several different types of wood-fired ovens in her backyard, using only materials such as rocks, sand, mud, and clay that would have been available to the colonists at the time.

In 2014, Marcoux poured her extensive knowledge into a definitive tome on live-fire cooking. Part cookbook, part historical and anthropological textbook, “Cooking with Fire” (Storey, 2014) is written in a conversational tone that makes it as enjoyable as it is informative. The book traces the concept of cooking with fire from when it originated 1.9 million years ago, and, according to Marcoux, changed the course of human evolution.

(She credits that first griller with bringing about humans’ smaller digestive tracts, mouths and teeth, and for “saving hours a day in chewing time, freeing us up to do things such as invent bread, pottery, beer, kebabs, bellows, tamales, accounting, and cheese.”)

“Cooking with Fire” covers techniques such as direct-grilling over a live fire; roasting on spits and from dangled strings; smoking with pine needles; baking in domed ovens; and nestling thick-skinned vegetables directly in the embers. It instructs on using implements such as sticks, grill grates, planks, griddles, skillets, cast-iron pots, and more. And it includes more than 100 wood-fired recipes for meat, seafood, vegetables, side dishes, breads, and desserts.

The recipes hail from both current and distant culinary history. A recipe for a roast pork dish dates to 14th century England, and a Catalonian herb sauce, from the early 1500s. Marcoux says wood-fired ovens are unparalleled for making pizza, pots of beans, stews, soups, and even almond meringue cookies, and she provides recipes for all. But the self-proclaimed “ferocious bread baker,” says a wood-fired oven especially works magic on bread. “The quality and texture is so much better,” she says.

Cooking on a spit over live fire.
Photo COURTESY: ©2018 Sandra van Dusen.

Stone oven.

As a food historian, Marcoux feared the book might be perceived as too “egg-heady,” but was pleasantly surprised at the tremendous outpouring of interest. “The response was much greater than I ever thought,” she says. “It really struck a nerve with people. We went around the country on a book tour and met people from every kind of background who told us about their family’s live-fire cooking traditions. People are held together by culinary traditions, and are passionate about wanting to reconnect with those traditions and preserve them for posterity.

“People will refer to a dish in the book and say, ‘My grandmother used to make that.’ And, I’ll say, ‘Did you write the recipe down?’ I’m always encouraging people to take pictures, record the recipes, and learn the techniques from older generations. I can’t tell you how many times people express regret over letting family recipes and traditions slip away. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of getting family and friends together to recreate the traditions. We have an element of responsibility to ensure the legacy continues, but more than that, it can open the window to a lifetime of delicious meals.”

Marcoux believes live-fire cooking traditions are particularly important to preserve because those meals tend to be social experiences that encourage engagement and involvement of all guests. She also believes in keeping the equipment old-school – simple and authentic. In fact, most of the cooking apparatuses that dot her backyard are ones she has made herself, “like our ancestors did,” from scraps of metal, bricks, rocks, discarded grill grates, flue liner, odds and ends, and bits of this and that she has collected for do-it-yourself outdoor cooking projects. Her book offers instructions for creating these low-tech cooking implements, even DIY mud ovens.

Of course, not everyone is into do-it-yourself projects. Specialty barbecue retailers should be ready to satisfy the sizable contingent of consumers who want the experience of live-fire cooking, but feel intimidated by the prospect of building their own equipment, or who prefer their gear to be state-of-the-art and present-century. Indeed, there is a growing selection of quality campfire grills, hybrid grills, charcoal grills, smokers, and wood-fired ovens, to serve this growing trend.

But whether the appliance is straight off the showroom floor or hand-made, Marcoux says the first step in mastering wood-fired cooking is learning to manipulate fire. She says it merely takes experimenting to get the knack for building the fire, determining the temperature, and judging the proper distance between the food and coals.

Building an oven.

Primordially roasting food on sticks or long-handled skewers directly over a wood fire is the easiest technique to start with, she says, “Plus, it’s fun.” Besides the obvious marshmallows and franks, Marcoux suggests grilling hunks of cheese or slab-bacon and letting the melted drippings drop onto crusty bread. To amp it up a bit, she suggests cooking a steak in a fireplace or fire pit by placing a couple of bricks in the coals and straddling a grilling grid or cast-iron skillet over them.

“Or,” she says, “take a shovel-full of coals and set a kettle or Dutch oven on it. It is so impossibly simple, but gives you incredible control and flavor. It’s a liberating moment; a life-changing experience that completely changes the way you relate to food. Once people try it they really enjoy it.

“There is a bifurcation, or a divergence, in outdoor cooking today,” she says. “There are people who cook on gas grills as an extension of the indoor kitchen range, and there are other people who carry a torch for the old ways and want to keep the past traditions of cooking with wood going. They see wood-fired cooking as exploration, adventure, and ‘project cooking.’”

“People write to me online all the time and send pictures of food they’ve cooked,” she said. “Someone even contacted me on Facebook and said, ‘I don’t know how to make scrambled eggs, but I’ve taken on every project in the book.’ Wood-fired cooking speaks to people and is totally rewarding. They become crazy and passionate about it.”

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