Embracing the Primordial Pull of the Grill 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. Pollan says that grilling outdoors is one of the highest honors we can bestow on a guest.
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Embracing the Primordial Pull of the Grill

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Embracing the Primordial Pull of the Grill

Embracing the Primordial Pull of the Grill

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The writer Michael Pollan describes July 4th as one of the high holy days of grilling. He has been writing about this primordial ritual, so we reached him by phone the other day in his backyard in Oakland, California, where he was firing up his own grill.

Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Writer): I've got a platter here of what I'm preparing to grill, a small steak, a piece of top round from a grass fed steer, and a piece of wild boar that I hunted last year and I've had in the freezer, a loin.

INSKEEP: A boar loin?

Mr. POLLAN: Boar tenderloin, to be more specific.

INSKEEP: How many loins are in a boar?

Mr. POLLAN: You get two. You get one on each side. And I've got a couple of potatoes that I'm grilling, too.

Mr. POLLAN: What kind of grill you got?

Mr. POLLAN: I've got a kettle grill. It's kind of a - I don't even know the brand name. It's a kind of faceless thing I picked up in a hardware store. It's nothing fancy. It's a $25.00 grill.

INSKEEP: What got you going at trying to get a little more primal about your food?

Mr. POLLAN: This is how cooking starts. Indeed, this is how humanity starts. The current thinking today among many anthropologists is that what really made us human, what set us apart from the animals, was cooking food over a fire.

INSKEEP: Hey, how are the coals doing?

Mr. POLLAN: We've got a really nice hot fire. Mesquite burns very, very hot. That's why people started using it for grilling. So I'm going to put my meat on now, starting with the potatoes, which are going to need the most time. And then I've got my steak going onto the flame. And these little tenderloins of boar are very, very thin. I don't think they're going to need too much time.

One of the things you have to be careful of when you're cooking meat that hasn't come off of a feed lot where it gets lots of corn and has lots of fat in it, is that it cooks really quickly.

INSKEEP: While we're waiting, let me just mention that our vegetarian friends by now are thoroughly disgusted with this conversation. You did take the step of actually going and looking your food in the face while it still had a face, didn't you?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, I'm very respectful of vegetarians. At a certain point in my explorations of the food chain, I decided, well, if I'm going to continue to eat meat, I have to get my head around the killing of the animals that of course happens to eat meat, although we forget about it. A lot of us act on the assumption that, you know, you can surgically remove a steak from a cow. But in fact, that's not how it happens.

So in the process of this research I did, I went hunting for boar. I also slaughtered some chickens on a farm.

INSKEEP: You slaughtered chickens on a farm?

Mr. POLLAN: I did. I wanted to know whether I could do that, clean those animals, and then enjoy eating them.


Mr. POLLAN: And the answer is yes. In fact, in the end I enjoyed them a lot more, having realized what was involved. But I ate them in a very different way, you know, with a lot more gratitude and even a certain reverence. You really understand why people say grace when you do something like that, because there has been a sacrifice involved, and you kind of want to acknowledge it.

INSKEEP: So how is that meat coming?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, it's coming pretty well. I'm actually about to flip the - oh, yeah, some nice grill marks on the boar loin. I think that's ready to flip. You know, it's funny, there is something very ceremonial though about standing around the grill. And when you think about it, you know, do we ever stand around the microwave together and talk? No. You really need a fire for that. You need these smells and you need this - when you're grilling, every sense is engaged. I mean my sense of smell, I feel the warmth on my skin, the taste is about to be engaged, and the sounds, the sounds are wonderful too.

INSKEEP: Are we getting close here?

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, we are. All right, let me get a sharp nice and a fork, my steak knife, cutting board. All right, I'm pulling off the steak. This looks nice.

INSKEEP: Okay, the steak is gone...

Mr. POLLAN: The steak is gone. Now, the tenderloin is coming off. All right, Steve, I've got a couple of nice bites of tenderloin of wild boar. It's actually kind of beefy tasting. It's got a lot more flavor than pork does.

INSKEEP: Well, Mr. Pollan, thanks for being with us this morning.

Mr. POLLAN: It was my pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: Michael Pollan, grilling in his backyard in Oakland, California. He is author of The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and he also teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. His tips for successful grilling are at NPR.org.

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