For roughly thirty years, my family has had an annual “Grape Stomp” where we pick and crush the fruit from an acre of vines planted in front of my parent’s Walla Walla home. The first grapes ripened just as I graduated from French culinary school so this event became my favorite performance stage. This year, I got the fire bug.
We have cooked several of these meals in or over live fire. Once, we buried a bunch of stuff in a pit and covered them with grape must. Another year my friend, Doug Cooper, rigged a makeshift rotisserie using the churning mechanism from an old ice cream maker. We have spun legs of lamb suspended by tripods. People still talk about Scott Wellsandt’s incredible paellas.
This year, I wanted very little fuss and lots of flexibility because there were very important considerations besides the food. This was our first party in Walla Walla in quite a while. The family Grape Stomps had been put on hiatus once we realized the gatherings had become more burden than celebration for my parents. Dad was frustrated with the vines and the constant demands of pruning, training, and fighting powdery mildew. Mom had more than enough spirit and enthusiasm, but her restricted mobility made entertaining nearly impossible. And then, last year, we lost Mom.
I justified this year’s party by claiming that Dad needed the company, but I know in my heart I just wasn’t ready to give it up. I limited the guest list to a handful of hearty friends who were both willing to make the 300 mile journey and to pack it all up and head to the local tavern if the weather turned ugly, or if Dad decided it was just too much. Cooking absolutely everything outside against the background of the Blue Mountains, with lots of laughter seemed like a very good thing and I knew just the chef to guide me, Francis Mallman. I pulled his book Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way from the bookshelf months ago. I was looking at it again when I learned that he was coming to town. Lara Hamilton, owner of Seattle’s Book Larder, had arranged for Mallman to sign copies of his new book, Mallman On Fire. I couldn’t pass it up, especially since the dinner and book signing was being held at Delancey, a marvelous restaurant owned by award winning blogger Molly Wizenberg and Chef Brandon Pettit. It was everything I had hoped for.
Mallman has an almost fictional aura. He’s a cross between a South American Marlboro man and a romanticized Ernest Hemmingway. He’s tall and handsome, a rugged outdoorsman who radiates refinement and gentility. His voice is buttery, with a hint of both old and new world accents. Mallman On Fire is about rustic cooking in some of the world’s most picturesque places: New York, Paris, California Wine country, Coastal Uruguay, and the mountains and rivers of Patagonia. That night he seemed weary and crowd shy. He often fled the dining room for the sanctuary of the fires, food, and cooks. I know the feeling. Rather than wait and elbow my way through a crowd of the wined and dined, I snuck away and introduced myself while the rest of the room was entranced by the roasted mussels in wine and family-style platters of butterflied leg of lamb with seared apple relish. I thanked him for his books and, in a flutter, suggested he stay and go fishing or find a place to enjoy the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest for a while. He graciously explained that he was due home in a few days to cook a cow and accompaniments for a party of 2,000. Perhaps another time.
Mallman’s food is very simple; meat, some top-quality ingredients to round out the main course, a lick of flame, and plenty of fresh air. I called Blue Valley Meats in Walla Walla to discuss my options. There was no point in schlepping stuff across the state when such a great source for top-notch goods is right there in town, although I did bring a few dozen oysters and some squid. Dad can eat his weight in calamari, but doesn’t get it very often.
Keeping the menu simple gave me a chance to really focus on the fire. I wanted to really test my understanding of how to manipulate a live, temperamental heat source. Cooking with live fire demands shovels, pits, and wood of various densities and dimensions. Ideally there are custom made or creatively scavenged metal grates, frames, spikes, vessels, and cooking surfaces. Basically, I wanted to play with fire, but that meant I had to play nice. Cooking with fire can quickly become a testosterone-fueled, cave man party. Well- adjusted, forward-thinking, modern men have been known to nudge me aside at my own events. It’s much like the elbows thrown at men when women gather around a new baby. It makes me bristly. The trick would be to be assertive, but keep my claws in. I needed to embrace the fact that cooking outdoors is communal, but make it clear from the get go that I had a well thought out plan and knew what I was doing. It went brilliantly.
I talked to Jeff about my concerns early. I sketched out what I had in mind and he set up a nice fire pit in Dad’s “back forty” when I was running around town picking up ingredients. It was long and low so there were fiery, crackling logs at one end that could gradually be raked into a bed of smoldering coals at the other and I could cook over every temperature in between. Jeff had nabbed a huge truck rim and scoured it thoroughly so I could also have a “feeder” fire pit. It gave me a constant source for logs and coals to control the cooking temperatures. (Barbecue expert, Steven Raichlen, suggests having a second barbecue going for just this reason, which is another glaring example of how inadequate a basic home barbecue can be.) Jeff also sourced an oversized metal grate to use as a grill and as a platform for the big, cast-iron pizza pan I was using for a chapa to sear foods. Our friends the Runnings gave us a cowboy campfire set up as a wedding present and our cast iron Dutch oven hung picturesquely from a swinging rod rather than just being propped up on rocks. I could grill, sear, simmer, and bake all at once. We couldn’t wait until dinner to try it out. We burned firewood from Dad’s stash until our guests arrived from their winery visits. The guys assessed the fire pit, as expected, but rather than adjust things or kibitz, they nodded and murmured with respect. They stayed close and leaned on shovels to show they were ready and waiting when I asked for another log or more glowing embers on the pumpkins.
Mother Nature threw a little bit of everything at us. There were sun breaks and squalls but never enough rain to douse the fire. A couple of pop up shelters and a propane heater kept the snacks from getting soggy and the drinks from unwelcome dilution. We laughed, noshed, and nibbled in what I understand to be the Argentine way, making it an event, not just a meal. Right at the end, the wind picked up. Joe held a lamp steady while I fed the fire and grilled the last of the meat. We packed up and moved things inside. Dessert seemed superfluous. Camembert from Dayton’s Monteillet Fromagerie and some fruit seemed like enough. Because I have hilarious friends, I also served a heaping bowl of their “Hostess Gifts”; Ho Ho’s, Twinkies, and Ding Dongs. Somehow my friend Dee managed to make the dishes disappear. In the end I don’t think I even rinsed a glass. She is a force of nature.
Windswept and satiated, we all crashed early. The next morning, we gilded this lily of a weekend with a box of my all-time favorite Buttermilk Bars from Poplar Donuts followed by plates of leftovers and a Seahawks win. And throughout it all, Dad smiled and laughed a lot. It was better than I could have ever hoped for.
Walla Walla Fire Feast Menu
“Oysterfest – Style” Grilled Oysters with Garlic-Lemon Butter and a good splash of Tabasco
Tomiticán – Tomato and Grilled Bread Soup with Poached Eggs
Ember Roasted Pumpkin with Arugula and Goat Cheese
Seared Squid with Homemade “All-purpose” Chile Sauce
Ember Roasted Shallots, Sweet and Hot Peppers, Cauliflower, and Carrots
Walla Walla Sweet Onion Sausage
Strips of Lamb Marinated in Green Chiles, Citrus, and Cumin
Sliced Porterhouse Steaks with Chimichurri
Seared Calves Liver with Pimenton Oil
Assorted Cheeses, Fruit, and Chocolates with Cognac and Cigars