It’s a dying art. One that brings people together with a sense of community, working together toward a common goal.
The group of Common Ground on the Hill students — primarily local high school teachers — participating in the weeklong “Having Your Way with Fire” and “Common Ground on the Grill” classes said they chose the courses to refine cooking or fire-making skills. But they left with an overwhelming sense of community.
“In many of the classes you’re learning a skill, or producing something that’s usually for yourself,” said Frank Reaver, a visual arts teacher at Century High School. “Whereas this class everyone is working together toward a common goal.”
In other classes, students might leave with a neat art project; in Common Ground on the Grill, students leave with a sense of community built from making fire, preparing food and cooking the meal over open flames — as a team. Students don’t leave hungry, either.
“We’ve cooked all sorts of things” including pies, stews, breads and meats, said instructor Shel Browder, a retired blacksmith from Williamsburg, Virginia. By using only the resources available to them — supplies bought at the onset of the weeklong course — students “begin to learn to cook without the recipe.”
On Friday, the menu was flexible and rooted in a simple concept: Finish up whatever’s left. So the students began to prepare beet salad, spicy Italian sausages, and blueberry and peach Schrumpf.
Some stood under a tent and around a table. They chopped vegetables for the salad, while others prepped fruit for the cobbler-esque desert.
“Should I chop these up?” Reaver asked his peers, holding pieces of cucumber under his knife blade, prepared to slice.
“We’re going to shred those, Frank!” said Paul Bangle, a teacher from Hampstead.
“Have you ever had the thrill of canning beets?” Cindy Reed asked, her hands a dark violet from scraping beets against a cheese grater. “I grew up helping my mom can beets.”
Cooking outside, over the fire, as a team is social, Browder explained. “When you [attempt] simple tasks like this, toward a common goal, you’re thrown together in a way that conversation becomes a natural part of it.”
The class cooks with dutch ovens, steel pans with legs called “spiders,” large cauldrons and a gridiron.
“We make food together,” Bangle said, “we break bread together.”
They must constantly pay attention to the flames and the coals, or risk undercooking or burning the food that took hours to prep.
“We grow up with instruments that tell you when something is at the correct temperature,” Browder said. “This type of cooking involves a much more immediate focus on what you’re doing. You can’t drift off.”
Lost in modern times, too, perhaps, is the ability to cook many meals over the fire, Reed said.
“I think of cooking on the fire as just the meat,” Reed said. “I’ve liked the reminder that you can cook anything on the grill.”
The class bakes bread using a dutch oven — a steel pot with legs. Students used a shovel to move coals from the fire under and on top of the cooking instrument. The lid of the round “oven” has a lip on it so coals heat the food from above, too.
The firemaking, food prepping and cooking process are just pieces of the community building.
“Once you’re done and you’ve had a successful, or not extremely successful effort at cooking, you sit down and eat together,” Browder said. “The conversation is around a table and many people don’t experience that anymore. They don’t sit down together to eat, so it actually makes family.”
Common Ground participants have daylong schedules packed with different activities. Some classes end their days with music or art, Common Ground on the Grill students end their day with a family-style meal. It’s the icing on the cake, so to speak. The fruits of an afternoon of work, slicing and dicing vegetables, tending to the fire and cooking together.
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To sit down and eat with his peers, Reaver said: “I think it’s the best way to end the day.”