Embracing the Primordial Pull of the Grill

Author Michael Pollan. Credit: Chad Heeter. i i

Michael Pollan is also the author of The Botany of Desire, Second Nature, and A Place of My Own. Chad Heeter hide caption

itoggle caption Chad Heeter
Author Michael Pollan. Credit: Chad Heeter.

Michael Pollan is also the author of The Botany of Desire, Second Nature, and A Place of My Own.

Chad Heeter

Author Michael Pollan explores the evolutionary reasons behind why we've learned to cook with fire in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

He tells Steve Inskeep that firing up the grill is a way for us to connect with the primordial rituals of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. And Pollan says that grilling outdoors is one of the highest honors we can bestow on a guest.

With the summer grilling season in high gear, Pollan offers a number of tips for successful cooking.

1. Don't barbecue alone. It's a social event. There's something about the grill that draws people together.

2. Keep touching the meat — with a clean finger — to make sure you're not overcooking the meat. Turn the meat frequently.

3. Don't use lighter fluid. It imparts a chemical taste to the meat. Use paper and a charcoal chimney to light your fire.

4. Experiment with woods. Use mesquite, apple wood, grape vines or scraps of other woods. They impart a flavor that can't be achieved with indoor cooking.

RECIPE: Grilled Loin of Wild Boar on the Barbecue

For the meat:

One loin of wild boar (loin of pork may be substituted)

Make incisions in meat and lard with slivers of fresh garlic; you can add springs of rosemary as well.

For the brine:

Two quarts water

1/3 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup cane sugar

1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns

1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 bay leaf

1 sprig of fresh rosemary (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)

Whole clove garlic, roughly chopped

Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add a few ounces of boiling water to dissolve salt and sugar. Stir and wait ten minutes. Then add cold water; stir again.

Preparation:

Add meat to brine and let soak in the refrigerator for at least six hours.

Prepare fire, build coals to one side of grill. When ready, briefly sear meat directly over coals, then move to side for indirect cooking. Cover grill to roast, turning once or twice, for approximately 30-45 minutes, depending of size of cut and heat of your fire. Check internal temperature with an instant read thermometer. Remove from grill when temperature at center reaches 130 degrees. Let sit for 20 minutes; internal temperature should reach 140. The meat will still be faintly pink. Wild boar is a very lean meat, so be sure not to overcook.

Slice. Can be served with grilled new potatoes (parboil first) or polenta. Very good with sauteed bitter greens, such as broccoli raab.

EXCERPT: Rules for the Perfect Meal

Perfect?! A dangerous boast, you must be thinking. And, in truth, there was much about my personally hunted, gathered, and grown meal that tended more toward the ridiculous than the sublime. I burned, just slightly, the crust of the cherry galette, the morels were a little gritty, and the salt, which in keeping with the conceit of the meal I'd gathered myself in San Francisco Bay, tasted so toxic I didn't dare put it on the table. So I seriously doubt that any of my guests, assuming I was out of earshot, would declare this a "great meal." But for me it was the perfect meal, which is not quite the same thing.

I set the date for the dinner — Saturday June 18 — as soon as my animal was in the bag: wild California pig would be the main course. Now I had a couple of weeks, while the pig hung in Angelo's walk-in, to coordinate the entree with whatever else I could find to serve. In planning the menu the rules I imposed on myself were as follows (and the exceptions thereto follow what follows):

1. Everything on the menu must have been hunted, gathered, or grown by me.

2. The menu should feature at least one representative of each edible kingdom: animal, vegetable, and fungus, as well as an edible mineral (the salt).

3. Everything served must be in season and fresh. The meal would reflect not only the places that supplied its ingredients, but a particular moment in time.

4. No money may be spent on the meal, though already-purchased items in the pantry could be deployed as needed.

5. The guest list is limited to those people who helped me in my foraging and their significant others. This included Angelo, Anthony, Richard, and a friend named Sue who took me on an unsuccessful chanterelle hunt on Mount Tamalpais. Plus of course Judith and Isaac. Unfortunately, Jean Pierre was in France. There would be ten of us in all.

6. I would cook the meal myself.

As the rulemaking suggests, the meal was a conceit — an ambitious, possibly foolhardy, and, I hoped, edible conceit. My aim in attempting it, as should be obvious, was not to propose hunting and gathering and growing one's own food as an answer to any question larger than the modest ones I stated out with: Would it be possible to prepare such a meal, and would I learn anything of value by doing so? I certainly don't mean to suggest that anyone else should try this at home, or that a return to finding and producing our own food is a practical solution to any of our culture's dilemmas surrounding eating and agriculture. No, little if anything about this meal was what anyone would call "realistic." And yet no meal I've ever prepared or eaten has been more real.

Excerpted from The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Copyright 2006 by Michael Pollan. Published by Penguin Press.

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