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Throw Another Steak on the Fireplace:
Open Flame Cooking Catches On

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Chestnuts aren't the only food worth roasting over an open fire: An increasing number of home owners are starting to treat their fireplaces as cooking implements.

The trend, chronicled in the Wall Street Journal this week, wouldn't stun anyone who ate cooked food sometime before the rise of the cast iron stove in the 1800s. Most cooking prior to that century was done over live flames, as the gray-bunned and shawled interpreters at various historic sites are ever eager to point out. Their nostalgic enthusiasm for soda breads and apple pies isn't unprecedented: As early as 1875, domestic arts experts were lamenting the demise of open hearth cookery.

"Cast-iron stoves are unhealthy, hideous and unpleasant," an anonymous critic of "stovy" flavors wrote in The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science and Art. "They produce a furnace-like heat, affecting taste, smell and sight."

Like those conservative cooks, the latest wave of fireplace fans haven't been drawn to the hearth by necessity or a Bicentennial-inspired fervor for the nation's agrarian past: They just think food tastes better when it's roasted over flames.

According to Wall Street Journal contributor Katy McLaughlin, who wrote about her experience of throwing a New York strip in the fireplace, sales of live fire cookbooks and fireplace cooking tools are up. "Live fire can catapult the simplest fare to divine levels," McLaughlin maintains.

I wouldn't know, since the only heating options in my downtown apartment are an electric stove and a microwave oven. But my college friend's husband, who's restoring a 19th-century stagecoach stop on the banks of the Kentucky River, swears by flame-seared meat. When I visited this weekend, he was planning to cook four venison steaks that way.

"It only takes about two minutes," he told me.

An early evening flight meant I wasn't able to stay for dinner, but another friend reported back: "The meat was quite good." And, after the meal, everyone roasted marshmallows over the still-crackling fire.

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