Fire Eaters

Kids in Dummerston learn how to cook food over a flame.

Students from Oyase Community School with campfire
Students from Oyase Community School around campfire

Written By

Abigail Mnookin

Written on

May 26 , 2015

Although cooking over a fire generally brings fond memories of roasting marshmallows for s’mores, it also offers a tremendous opportunity to become more connected with the places we live and the food we eat. From preparing the raw ingredients to building a fire to keeping a close eye on the food as it cooks, this hands-on process engages all.

Every Thursday, I experience this sense of connection as an instructor for the Oyase Community School, a weekly program in the Dummerston woods where 6- to 12-year-olds learn earth living, nature awareness, and community skills. We meet outdoors, in all kinds of weather, and allow each day to unfold based upon plant and animal sightings, seasonal “survival” needs, and student passions. Primitive cooking is one of my favorite parts of the day. Each season provides unique opportunities to prepare local and wild-harvested food, which we then cook over a fire.

Last fall, we picked tart autumn olive berries from an invasive deciduous shrub and simmered them in a tasty sauce sweetened with maple syrup. Throughout the winter, we roasted root crops from local farms and skewered venison that had been hunted by our school’s field director nearby. In the spring, we picked fiddlehead ferns and dandelion flowers, which we then fried into mouth-watering fritters.

Building a fire represents a significant part of the cooking process, and it encourages teamwork. Although we occasionally use matches, we also start many fires by friction, sometimes using a bow drill. While one to three people work together to achieve a smoking ember, others build tinder bundles from resinous cedar bark or the downy material from dried cattails. Still others rip dry birch bark for kindling, as another group gathers and separates twigs into piles of varying size. When there’s a coal and it’s blown into flames—which takes practice and patience—a few people tend the fire to produce a solid bed of coals for cooking. Throughout the winter, the added perk of staying warm offers incentive to tend the fire.

When it’s cooking time, we use a variety of “primitive” methods at Oyase. Perhaps because it’s reminiscent of roasting marshmallows, kids almost universally love to roast food on a stick, whether it’s apples, hot dogs, or even bread dough. They learn how to carve sticks for roasting, and toil with great concentration. We heat flat rocks to create griddles for grilled cheese sandwiches, latkes (potato pancakes), and fried eggs. Each year, around Thanksgiving, we fill a pit with fire-heated rocks and food to share with feasting families. This earth oven employs an ancient technique used by cultures around the world.

Special occasions also entice us to spit-roast small animals such as chickens. Once, we skinned a recently road-killed gray squirrel before roasting it on the spit. For some kids, this was the closest they had ever been to a dead animal. Their faces toggled between disgust, caution, and admiration.

Once in a while, we’ve hunted the animals ourselves. Last fall, the kids used small nets to catch crayfish from the West River. At first, they just wanted to observe them up close, but then one child suggested that we eat them. After some discussion, our small, curious group of 7-year-olds agreed. We thanked the crayfish for their gift of meat, killed them with one quick jab of a knife, and placed them in hollow knotweed stalks, which we then filled with water and boiled over the fire. The kids marveled at the dramatic color change from reddish brown to bright orange.

When it came time to eat, most were surprised by how little there actually was. Each child took a small bite, and compared it to more-familiar foods. Visceral experiences such as these stand in sharp contrast to buying prepared foods from a supermarket. As Bob Etzweiler, Oyase’s field director, puts it: “When you’re building a fire primitively from wood that you harvested on the land, and you’re cooking meat from an animal that lived on that land, you’re connecting with that place in an intimate and powerful way.”

Before we eat at Oyase, storytelling always plays a part. We share the historical and current uses of plants, the story of whatever is known about an animal’s life and death, and gratitude and blessings on the meal. I don’t know what these kids eat at home, but they surprise me with their willingness to try something new—persuaded, perhaps, by their own role in preparing it.

“Who wants rock-roasted potatoes?” I recently heard a 9-year-old girl shout with glee.

Cooking over a fire is probably not the primary means by which we in the West prepare food today, but by choosing to cook the fruits of our labor over an outdoor fire, we nourish meaningful connections to the food we eat, the places we live, and all those who relied on these practices before us.

About the Author

Abigail Mnookin

Abigail Mnookin

Abigail Mnookin lives in Brattleboro with her wife and their daughter. In addition to outdoor teaching, she is the membership coordinator for Brattleboro Time Trade and a commentator for Vermont Public Radio. Read more of her work at digital.vpr.net/people/abigail-mnookin.

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