"Among all phenomena, fire is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in paradise. It burns in hell. It is gentleness and torture. It is cookery and it is apocalypse."
For the first time in my life, I find myself in the market for a new cooking stove. I'm a compulsive product researcher, so I eagerly turned toward back issues of Consumer Reports and, more dangerous but more exciting (if only just), the wide world of World Wide Web discussion forums, where I found people debating kitchen ranges with the kind of ferocity usually reserved for politics or sports. "Jenn-Air is crap!" ***image3***people proclaimed. "Viking has sucked since the '80s," they typed with conviction. "Real chefs wouldn't have anything but Blue Star!" and "GE is a traitorous home appliance." Slowly, it dawned on me that it was as macho as talking carburetors and glass packs. The bottom line was how many BTUs can your stove put out? How hot and big can your fire burn?
Now, even before Eddy Murphy, iconic comedian of my youth, riffed on the ridiculous nature of competitive BBQ lighting among men, a strange mix of Saturday morning cartoons and Saturday afternoon bonfires among my father and his man-friends had clued me in to the fact that fire was part of a hierarchy of adult male priorities. If you were unable to club a woman over the head and drag her back to your cave, the next best thing was to burn something, preferably a lot of somethings. With a bit of burning shrub, for example, one could fend off wild animals, see in the darkest caves, even instigate organized religion and thus create a system wherein clubbing women over the head was quasi-legal.
Even though I only visited my father on weekends and was raised by my mother to be one of those sensitive modern males, I still feel the tug of the man-fire. Each winter, ***image1***when the hardware stores put the BBQ grills on sale, I'm drawn to them like a moth to, well, you know. I start thinking "Hey, 500 bucks isn't so bad for a 6 foot gas grill with a side burner and a rotisserie," which is difficult for me to spell, let alone, no doubt, actually put to use. I recently purchased a new house (thus the need for the stove), and it's such an old adobe that every room has a fireplace for heat through the winter. My wife was thinking, "How romantic," but I was thinking, "Hell, yeah. I can burn something in every room of the house!" Not long ago, we visited friends in Boulder and saw their beautiful house for the first time. The garden was incredible, the view superb and the home itself absolutely stunning, but it wasn't until we got to the built-in brick fire pit that I turned to the man of the house and said, "Dude…sweet."
But Internet forums dedicated to appliances revealed that women are just as ferocious as men when it comes to the bulk of their burn. "Nunh-unh, girlfriend, you can't even pretend to make a decent stir-fry with anything under 18,000 BTUs," one woman counseled another. "If you don't have full-spectrum control over your flame, from ***image2***the lowest simmer to the hottest burn, you don't have anything," a Nigella wannabe said. Most women (and men) would admit to perfect satisfaction during years of cooking on a more standard 9,000 to 11,000 BTU unit, but now that the fire can be bigger, the fire has to be bigger.
It's no wonder, really-we owe an awful lot to fire. It really was handy for fending off predators and building societies. But it's even more subtle and complicated than that. We modern humans love our thin, sleek bodies descended from Homo erectus. One glance at the earlier Australopithecus vs. erectus and it's clear that big, ugly jaw is the mark of a small-brained creature. But it was fire that saved us from the fate of being a chunky-headed race and gave us the slender forms we're so fond of today. Cooked food is just plain softer than raw food, thus evolution allowed oversized jaw muscles to fall by the wayside. And the language that spills from our fire-induced fitness now itself ripples with flame. Whether speech is derivative, like "getting burned" or "burning out rather than fading away," or more direct, like "fire sales," "fire in the hole," "fire dancing," "fire walking" or just plain "getting fired," all kinds of ideas about illumination and immolation are at the core of our sense of existence. Even popular culture understands intuitively that when you buy a new stove with a stupid hot flame, there is a likelihood of finding that "the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire."
And we all know at that point, you let the motherf*cker burn.