From the Ashes, Dinner! by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, Oct. 25, 1995

“Back at the dawn of culinary history, even before some cave-dwelling Escoffier thought of suspending food over flames, a more primitive culinary theorist threw some food into the coals of a dying fire and left it there to cook.

As cooking goes, that’s about as primal as it gets. Eventually the method was refined slightly by enclosing the food in leaves or other wrappings to protect it somewhat from the coals. Today, this simple cooking method is still used in some isolated parts of the world.

It is not necessary, though, to travel far to discover this technique in action. Even in techno-centric America, it is employed in one particular location: a Boy or Girl Scout camp. There, some enterprising camper can inevitably be found wrapping food in foil and shoving it into the embers of a campfire. These budding chefs refer to their meals as “hobo packs,” a name derived from the Depression-era nomads who adopted the method to accommodate their need for simple, portable cooking.

But this method also has many virtues to recommend it, even to sedentary cooks whose scouting days are long past.

First, the process is incredibly easy. The cook has only to gather some appropriate foods; add butter or oil and a few flavoring elements like herbs, garlic or citrus; wrap the whole batch in heavy-duty foil; lay the packet in the ashes, and wait for it to be done.

It is also an adaptable cooking method, suitable for live fires of any kind. Acceptable locations include a covered grill in the backyard, a driftwood fire built on the beach as a farewell to warm weather, or a fireplace in the living room.

Even more important than ease or adaptability, though, is the fact that setting out to prepare an ash-cooked meal is the beginning of a culinary adventure. Every fire is different, so the results are unpredictable. And the risk of incinerating dinner, combined with the undeniable thrill of playing with fire, provide an element of excitement that cannot be matched by modern cooking methods. In the absence of stoves, thermometers and dials, it’s just the cook and the fire, with guesswork as the only guide.

The risk and the fun of ash-roasting both come from the same fact: only about an eighth of an inch of foil separates the food from a very intense heat source. While oven walls rarely exceed 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the coals of a dying fire are in the neighborhood of 750 to 1,000 degrees. Through its direct contact with this very high heat, food cooked in ashes becomes deeply browned, which gives it a wonderful edge of caramelized flavor.

As might be expected, some of the food that bumps up against the foil walls of the packet may burn rather than brown. Anticipate this by starting out with 20 percent more food than is actually needed.

Like high-heat roasting, which it most closely resembles, cooking in ashes works best with densely textured foods like root vegetables. Unlike roasting, though, ash-cooking requires that the food be cut into relatively small pieces, so that it will cook through before the heat of the coals burns too much of the food at the outside of the packet. It is also a good idea to keep the batches of food small, so that the foil-wrapped packets are not too unwieldy to take in and out of coals.

The most crucial aspect of ash-cooking technique, though, is wrapping the food well enough so that the juices stay inside the packet during cooking. This requires three sheets of heavy-duty foil, each about two feet long. Start by placing the food to be cooked in the center of the first length of foil, then lay the second length over the top. Fold the edges of the two sheets together on all sides, closing the pack, then roll them up until they bump into the food, forming a ridge around its perimeter. Place the pack right side up in the center of the third length of foil and fold the four sides over the top of the packet, one after another.

Thus protected, the package is ready for the coals. Whether wood or charcoal is the fuel, the fire should have passed its peak of intensity and be dying down, so that it consists primarily of glowing coals covered with a thin film of gray ash.

Clear a place for the foil packets, leaving only a thin layer of coals. Place the packets on that thin layer, and heap up coals all around, but not directly on top. Then it is merely a matter of keeping watch to make sure the packets are continuously in contact with glowing coals, moving the packets around or adding a bit more fuel if necessary, for 15 to 40 minutes, depending on the heat of the coals and the contents of the packets.

Then comes the moment of drama, when the package that has been hidden in the mysteries of the fire is retrieved and brought to the table. There is no matching the tension that occurs when the blackened foil is set before the guests, and the skeptics remark negatively on the prospect of actually eating what is inside. Then the packets are opened, the wonderful aromas emerge, and the cook is instantly transformed from a foolhardy adventurer into a culinary hero — or goat, depending on how much of the food is burned.”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “From the Ashes, Dinner!” by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, Oct. 25, 1995

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