Without the biggest fire of them all, that massive nuclear reaction that dictates all cycles and seasons on earth, the sun, we would not exist
I’ve spent a lot of time around fires in my life. From my first memories with my dad on the banks of the Breede River, cooking whole Kabeljou; to when I got married to my wife Eugenie and served up a spitted Greek style lamb with all the accoutrements (dips, salads and desert), prepared and cooked by friends, right down to filming contestants being put through their paces in 6 seasons of the Ultimate Braai Master
All these memories have a common thread. The river was where we renewed our family ties; our important day was more than a celebration of two newly-weds finding their feet with their friends; Braaimaster was about celebrating what we all love to do on weekends. All of them were around a fire. All of them were social events.
Most of us have those fire memories, but I often ask myself why? Why does the fire resonate with who we are?
If we look back on our time on Earth as a species, the use of fire was pivotal in allowing us to evolve. It represented safety from animals that had bigger and sharper teeth than we had; it allowed us to access food sources that were otherwise in-edible; it provided light on dark nights; protection from things that go bump in the dark; warmth… and I believe that that those memories and needs are deeply ingrained in our DNA.
But what is it actually?
If we get down to the physics, Fire is a reaction between oxygen and some sort of fuel source. Add ignition, and there’s a combustion reaction that results in a couple of side reactions. The obvious one is heat, then incandescence (light) and there are a number of by-products, including ash and smoke. All can be defined by science, and all are critical for life on Earth.
Yes, there are a bunch of other questions posed by this combustion reaction; the difference between charcoal and wood, why one almost burns with no smoke; even the beauty and horror of fire in that it can be self-perpetuating as long as there’s a fuel source and oxygen (just think of the tragic fires that engulfed the George, Wilderness and Knysna areas).
Fire is essential for life on earth. Without the biggest fire of them all, that massive nuclear reaction that dictates all cycles and seasons on earth, the sun, we would not exist. Beyond creating the unique conditions that allow for all life on earth, there is a specific reaction between plants and this big fire. Plants convert the solar energy created by the sun into matter. It’s a magical process that give us the plants we eat, the oxygen we breath, the wood we build with and creates the soil that binds it all together.
In nature, fire is necessary. There are only three elements that break down plant matter and allow a phoenix like re-generation. The tooth and mandible are the obvious two. Creatures eat or break down plant matter into what will one day become part of a natural composting process that creates soil, but it is fire that is so important to release moribund matter that’s been converted by plants into organic matter. When fires burn, the minerals that are held in stasis, are released back to the earth for re-use in the form of ash. It’s a beautiful, harsh but necessary part of life on earth that I fully understand as a gardener and resident of Earth, but as a cook, I love what fire does to food.
The lamb chop that’s simply seasoned and kissed by smoke has an Umaminess that cannot be imparted to food in any other way. Like snowflakes, no two fires are the same, and like snowflakes, no two lamb chops and the ensuing social engagement around the fire are the same either.
Gathering around a fire and the ensuing braai takes us back to the cultural importance of fire. You can see it in the Rainbow Nation. We have 11 official languages and loads of ethnic groups, and we all gather around a fire. Whether it’s a Shisanyama joint in the townships, or in the heartland of the boerewors curtain or a mussel potjie on the West Coast, the cooking on fire brings our cultures together and allows us to firm up our friendship and family bonds, making us remember.
I often think that fire is encapsulated in the Afrikaans word kuier. Loosely translated it means visit, but it means so much more. It’s the word that describes how when we prepare food on the open fire, we create a social engagement that allows us to connect as a community and take a trip down memory lane to our forefathers of old.
So whether your man alone in the bush watching the African TV, are having a sunset braai with friends, are making stok-brood for the first time, are taking your children camping or are simply fighting the Winter cold with a roaring hearth, no matter where we’re from or our ethnic background – these fire memories remind us of who we are and where we come from.
I can only imagine that for our collective forefathers, fire represented a form of magic. What I do know is that this magic has translated across the millennia and is still true for all of us and is deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche.
We are a species that has a burn culture…