When I imagine cooking over a fire, I picture steaks, burgers, roasts—meat, pretty much. Raw fire evokes the idea of something primal and beyond agricultural civilization—cave men, cowboys, and Vikings are the type of men we imagine, perhaps ahistorically, standing around a carcass suspended over flame, skin blistering and fat melting.
That’s the sort of baggage I was carrying as I approached Tim Byres’ Smoke: New Firewood Cooking. It’s also baggage I was to immediately discard. To be sure, Byres writes about ribs, briskets, and other meats you’d expect to find near a fire. However, that’s a small part of what he is advocating. Byres uses his firewood to make spice blends, chili purees, marmalades, ash salsa, arugula salads, traditional hominy, roast oysters, foie gras pâté, baked breads, and cocktails. There is no element of a meal that Byres can’t make using firewood.
How can firewood be so versatile? A fire can be built to roar, or burned down to coals. You can grill over direct heat, or indirect heat. You can hot smoke and cold smoke. Use a clay pot or Dutch oven, and you can bake over the coals.
The main reason that Smoke is such an excellent cookbook is that it is not merely a book of recipes. Cooking is about technique as much as a list of ingredients, and Byres is a skilful teacher who gives detailed accounts of the practical skills necessary to cook with firewood. How to select and cure wood. How to manage coals. What tools are required. How to build a smokehouse. How to build an upright pig roaster. How to make sausages. Cleaning soft-shell crabs. Digging a barbacoa pit. Dressing and stuffing a rabbit.
This multitude of practical knowledge is rounded out with dozens of incredible recipes for American and Mexican favourites, an over abundance of food porn, and instructions for your very own “feasts”. Ever wanted to do a Gulf Coast-style seafood boil? Byres shows you how to shuck your oysters, build your table, make your drum grill, and gives you all the recipes to make that happen. He does the same for Tejano barbacoa, a pig roast, and a campfire breakfast. “Comprehensive” isn’t a strong enough word for how thoroughly Byres covers the acts of building and preparing tools, stocking a larder, cooking the food, and—finally—enjoying it.
The result is an unselfconscious style of food, pulling together elements of sophisticated flavours and presentation that would not be out of place in the fine dining world and elements of unpretentious traditional cooking found all over the rural American South. It’s food for the man who’s never been to culinary school, but can’t stand the thought of yet another round of searing some pre-sliced sauce-slathered steaks on an overwrought gas grill and calling it a day. In the vast expanse of humanity’s collective culinary knowledge, there’s plenty of room for rediscovery. The last time I read a cookbook that moved me so, it was Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. Here’s hoping that Tim Byres’ Smoke: New Firewood Cooking shares the same sort of success.
Dave Robson is the editor of DailyXY. He spends his time reading books, drinking Scotch, and smoking cigars.