This labor day, have a cookout. Whether you are headed for the hills or staying at home, you can travel the open road camping and cooking around a cozy campfire or turn up the heat on your back yard grill. Or set up an outdoor kitchen and cook for 30 like Veronica of Meadowlark Farm Dinners.

Veronica of Meadowlark Farm Dinners

You might not realize you are globally connecting, not just with your ancestors, but with most countries outside of the western world in present day.

I love the portability of a makeshift kitchen. In Asia, India, Africa, for example, gas is still a luxury and electricity is still scarce in some parts. They can feed themselves as well as make a buck if they set up their kitchen in the marketplace or on the side of the road close to where they live. Some of the best food in the world is street food. I think in some ways it can be more hygienic, rather than some establishments where cleanliness and refrigeration are questionable. Street food is fresh everyday. You can eat cheap and well, using your discreet, intuitive eater-meter, of course.

Sardines grilling in the port. Essaouira, Morocco

Making a fire doesn’t mean you have to grill meat. In Laos, they heat a pot of water for noodle soup with fresh greens and sprouts. Some friends and I took an eight hour drive over the hills from Ventienne, the capitol, down to Luang Prabang, a world heritage site city with 70 temples. We passed dozens of Hmong villages on the way. Children had been out gathering fire wood with their mothers. They weren’t much taller than the sticks they were carrying, but were running around smiling. Their loads were not heavy. They looked like walking porcupines. Some children had babies on their backs and some had sticks. They were involved in the survival of daily life, which afforded them the appetite to sit and enjoy a meal cooked with wood they gathered themselves.

Village cooking in Lao

Most cooking vessels are earthen. Usually constructed in a mound, they have openings like an arch as the doorway, where they can build a fire and then cook what might be sitting on top of the mound, or something cooked inside. Bread and chapati’s are cooked this way, with the stretched out dough actually slapped on to the wall of the oven and them peeled off when golden.

Tannourt. Tnine, Morocco

In Morocco, they not only have earthen ovens, they also have the tagine. A conical shaped terra-cotta lid that sits on a flat terra cotta bottom. This ‘top and bottom’ sit on a base called a majmar, an unglazed brazier full of hot coals that cook the tagine slowly. In the markets, tagines are lined up with all the various styles; vegetarian, fish with potatoes, chicken with olives and lemon, or lamb with prunes, to name a few. This dish is a crowd pleaser with an intoxicating aroma.

me with yummy vegetable tagine

Now, everyone is crazy about wood-fired ovens for pizza. The Italians have perfected a good thing. Every farmhouse in Italy has it’s own oven. The fire is built in the center and when the top of the oven turns white, you scoot the coals over to the side and the small flames lick up the side and over the dome. You need a hot oven for pizza. It cooks in two minutes. As the fire dies down, you can put other things in there, like setting a grill in the middle and scooping up some of the coals to put underneath. You are now ready for grilling chicken, studded with garlic and rosemary, or a variety of vegetables.. You have to use long mits to check for doneness, or you might lose a few arm hairs! Most items can be tested for doneness with you nose and your eyes. No doubt it’s an art to how learn to gage the temperature of your oven. Italians test everything with their finger and see if it the meat bounces back just right. Have you ever noticed that about the time you smell the cake, it’s done?

Carla, la fochista ~ La Cucina al Focolare

If you are unconfident with this measure, Mugnaini Imports, a wood-fired oven Import company out of California has the exclusive on the temperature gun. It can shoot a laser dot into the center of the oven and tell you exactly what temperature it is. If you wanted to bake cookies at 350F.. you can. If the temp starts to lower, you just throw in another piece of wood. I still vote for learning how to ‘feel’ if it’s done. Otherwise, we can’t tell how our own inner fire is cooking. Fire is transformation whether it’s making food more digestible, or whether we are trying to turn the temperature up on our own lives, living the way we want to live in our lives~ feeling alive. No doubt spiritual masters have developed their own laser dot, to check if we are ‘cooking’ hot enough. Those eyes penetrate right through as if to say..’ need more heat on your ego, you’re only at 375!’

Lori de Mori, with her hand built oven in Tuscany.

A person might ask, why should I cook like that or even want to, if I don’t have to. The answer is, you don’t have to. But if you are into cooking and using your imagination, you can entertain yourself, your palate and your friends with surprising them with something ‘unexpected and unusual.’ Wood fire gives a special flavor. It also gives a different energetic quality to the food. They say that cooking on fire is the most beneficial for building ones chi (life force). It’s hot but mellow. In Oriental medicine five -element theory, the heart is the most active and joy is the emotion.

Working with an international theme is always fun, because you can build on it. You can stage an entire experience on a certain theme or blend the best of your progressive world with the influence and authenticity of other cultures. So, wherever you are, honor it’s patron saint. Light up your life with the fire element. It’s good for the heart!

For further information on how to grill over an open pit,  click here.

Learn more about Peggy Markel’s upcoming Culinary Adventures and Slow Food Tours. Click here.