The Playboy guide to cooking with fire

John takes a look at the ‘manly art of outdoor cooking’ according to Playboy magazine or ‘how to play with fire’.

I love old food writing. Recipe books from decades long gone fascinate me but books are not the only places to find interesting content. One of the more intriguing sources that I have recently discovered are old issues of Playboy magazine.

Yes, Playboy!

People who have never picked up a copy are likely to dismiss Playboy as a sexist and misogynistic dinosaur. But if you delve a little deeper you will realise that this really is quite an unfair judgement.

Put the nude photographs aside and you are left with a magazine which has over more than four decades featured interviews with a huge number of notable and historically important figures including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, featured original fiction from the likes of Margaret Atwood, Ian Fleming, Vladimir Nabakov and Haruki Murakami. Returning to the photography for a moment (they actually stopped featuring nude images late last year) it has featured the work of Annie Leibovitz and Helmut Newton. It is probably also worth noting that the company was headed by a woman, Christie Hefner, for over two decades.

All of this is a massive aside though, the point is that alongside whatever other content there have regularly been, from the very first issue in December 1953, some intriguing articles about food and drink in the magazine.

In the early decades, much of it was written by Thomas Mario, food and drink editor aka. The Playboy Gourmet. I have managed to find very little information about Mr Mario but his writing is definitely of interest. Mario describes his own writing style as having a “robustious masculine tang” and while some of the recipes are really interesting, much of the wit and innuendo does feel really very dated.

With that in mind, here then is one of my favourite articles from July 1954, reproduced in full and with some of the less up to date techniques slightly debunked (in green)

How to play with fire

Playing with fire - divider

The manly art of outdoor cooking was never intended for panty-waists.

A man who invites his lady fair out to the terrace to impress her with his own idea of grilled filet mignon marchand de vind may find himself suddenly in the midst of a bruising brawl. A fight is on – not with one but with a whole arena of redoubtable opponents. He is burned with hot charcoal, walloped with grills, cut with knives, jabbed with forks, stained with grease and groggy with smoke. His dream of making a wonderful impression with skewers of flaming shish kebab winds up with the backyard chef howling for first aid.

Only after the amateur chef first learns how to ward off these chin busters can he introduce a note of romance via the lady’s stomach. When he’s mastered the skill of al fresco cooking, he has an art that can be used for many purposes besides assuaging hunger.

– it’s summertime. You and she have been splashing around in the lake for a few hours. Evening is approaching and you feel the first sign of hunger gadding about. You take a picnic basket and proceed to build the fire while she sets the big slab stone that serves as your table top. You pour a few dry martinis from a thermos and your appetites are sharpened into definite focus. The smell of burning applewood and the crackling fire beneath the thick prime steaks makes her secretly swoon. There is another round of martinis. Both of you feel an almost unbearable craving to sink your teeth into solid food. And then you deliver the thick brown steaks, charred and crisp on the outside, rare inside.

– she pierces the meat with a steel steak knife and the juice gushes out forming a quick pool of gravy with the sweet butter on the plate. There are a few minutes of delicious silence broken only by the sounds of soft oohs and aahs and the clatter of knives and forks crossing each other. You interrupt the steak fest for a moment to hand her an ear of roasted golden bantam corn on the cob. Both of you aim for the butter at the same time and then, moving your jaws in the well known rhythm from left to right, you slowly demolish the sweet golden kernels. The charred steak and the salt sprayed on the corn create a thirst and this you slake with bottles of ice cold pale dry ale.

– as she sips the ale you detect in her eyes a kind of yielding rapture. Are there any further stratagems necessary? Your battle, of course is won.

A man about-town going on an out-door picnic is not the old fashioned type whose idea of fun is to build a primitive trench fire in the Andes or to construct a mud reflector for a rough stone barbecue on a mountainside. He is not in the habit of going into rhapsodies over grilled porcupine or marinated saddle of buffalo. He wants his beef steaks cut from the best blue ribbon beef, unmasked with pretentious sauces or phony garnishes. Fun should be fun and should be easy.

To become adept at the barbecue you should know something of the equipment you’ll need. If you are building a permanent brick or stone outdoor fireplace, you should remember to locate it so that the fire faces in the direction of the prevailing wind. This will prevent your guests from suffocating with smoke when you guild your blaze in the outdoor galley. It’s also a good idea, if you’re building a permanent dining table, to place it sufficiently far from the fire so that your guests are not inadvertently grilled to a medium brown while the hamburgers are on the fire. Finally the fireplace should be surrounded with a wide flagstone or brick walk to handle the traffic of cooks and hungry customers and to stack wood or charcoal.

Portable outdoor stoves come in an infinite variety of shapes and sizes. There are small collapsible stoves that can easily fit into the trunk compartment of your car. They are easy to carry and set up. But the are low and you may develop a semi permanent kink in your back from bending over. There are higher grills of both light and heavy metal, some with horizontal fires, others with vertical fires, many of them fitted with revolving spits.

PLAYBOY particularly recommends the portable brazier stove. This is a shallow round metal container with a wire rack above it. Some braziers are equipped with a small forge making it possible for you to build a sturdy fire in a few minutes without fanning, tinder, liquid fuel or other fire feeders. Frequently they are built wheelbarrow style with rubber wheels. They are not easily knocked over and are extremely simple to handle.

Cooking utensils needn’t be elaborate either. All outdoor utensils, however, should have extra long handles so that you can approach the fire without searing your arms or face. First of all you should own a sturdy double wire broiler into which you can fit your steaks or chops for easy turning. You should have a kitchen fork and spatula, both with long handles. A cooks French knife should be razor sharp. finally you should own a pair of long tongs – not the cute chromium affairs used for lifting ice cubes but the sturdy tongs that professional cooks use for turning steaks, chops and cutlets. Go to a store selling restaurant equipment to buy the tongs. They are a wonderful aid in placing and transferring hot food. Always have a couple of rough kitchen towels and a pot holder within easy reach. A pair of asbestos gloves are a protection against burns but they are a prime nuisance when you have to handle raw meat, rolls or other food.

Don’t dress up like a man who has just arrived from the Outer Spaces when you go to grill a hamburger. Pretentious epicures will urge you to wear a high chef’s hat, a fancy neckerchief, butchers or asbestos apron with fancy pockets and fancy sayings, goggles, asbestos gloves and cuffs – everything including war ribbons and epaulettes. If you go for such donkey shines, and they mean fun, all right. Otherwise a pair of clean work pants and an easy-to-launder outdoor shirt that has known a stain or two in its history are very adequate.

Clearly the article is showing a bit of age – asbestos anything is really not a good idea at all, and if you do own asbestos gloves or aprons then not only don’t use them, but get rid of them far far away!

To play with fire properly you should never attempt to cook while the fire is being built. Let the initial wild flames and the smoke drift away and when you have a bed of quiet red hot coals, you should begin to broil your steaks. Any hardwood such as hickory or apple may be used as fuel. But better than wood are charcoal or charcoal briquettes. For starting the fire you may use dry wood shavings or dried wood as tinder. A liquid preparation, charcolite, is very handy if you have difficulty starting the blaze. If you are using charcoal, however, a half dozen sheets of crumpled newspaper are sufficient to start the fire.

It is all personal preference of course, but whilst charcoal is undoubtedly easier to control, nothing tastes better than meat roasted over a real wood fire.

If there is a good draft in your stove or if there is a forge, you wait until the tinder bursts into flames and then slowly add the charcoal. Don’t add so much fuel that the fire is smothered. If the charcoal seems to take very slowly, fan the fire with a newspaper or use the forge. Don’t abandon the fire for 15 or 20 minutes while you are quaffing a bottle of beer. You may return to find no fire left at all.

When you have established your bed of red hot coals, you may commence to broil. Don’t use meat with excessive fat. The fat melts into the flames and soon both the wire broiler and the meat are wrapped in a sea of fire. Lamb chops are particular offenders in this respect. Trim them of almost all outer fat before broiling. To help the meat seal quickly and brown quickly, brush it with cooking oil before exposing it to the fire.

If, in spite of your precautions, the flames become whipped up to an uncontrollable fury, remove the meat and douse the fire with a sprinkling of water, using a rubber water spray if possible. Don’t flood the fire, or you may have a minor explosion followed by a burst of steam and then have to start the fire all over.

The meat should be 4 or 5 inches away from the fire. If it is too close, the meat may be charred to a black leathery mass. Raise the meat away from the fire, if necessary, using several bricks or large stones to increase the distance between the hot coals and the food.

There is something quite special about the kind of barbecued burgers and sausages that are served up black and crunchy on the outside and semi raw in the middle. It’s not a good kind of special!

Here are some rules of thumb for the fire game. Brush the wire broiler with cooking oil or salad oil before placing the meat in the broiler. This will keep the meat from sticking to the wire. Clean the wire broiler after each use to remove food particles and to prevent rancidity. Use a wire hairbrush or copper scouring pads.

Outdoor broiled foods are only good if you know when to stop broiling. The idea in broiling is to expose as much of the surface of the food as possible to the flame so the meat has a crisp out crust while remaining juicy inside. Don’t overcook. You can tell whether a steak or chop is rare, medium or well done by pressing it quickly with your fingers or with the back of a spoon. Meat that is rare will rebound quickly when touched. As it becomes more well done, it becomes firmer to the touch. Overdone meat will feel as firm as a stone slab. If you are broiling a steak or chop with a bone, you can cut alongside the bone and see the colour of the exposed meat. Season broiled meat with salt and pepper after broiling, not before. The salt retards browning.

Ah, the old to season or not to season question… It is one that is often debated and no consensus reached. Personally I like to season the first side of the meat immediately before putting it on the grill, and season the second side just before turning it over for the first time.

One of the biggest offences of outdoor cooking is panfrying. The prime purpose in grilling over an outdoor flame is to impart the sturdy but delicate flavour of the charcoal or wood to the food. Hickory smoked salt is often used by cooks as a flavouring ingredient in order to convey this fascinating treat to the tastebuds. When you fry your meat in a pan, you achieve no more flavour than you can get from ordinary indoor cookery.

Steers on steaks

At least half the success in broiling steaks is in buying the right meat in the first place. There are tender, semi-tender and tough cuts of beef. Tender steaks, following the nomenclature used in retail butcher shops, are porterhouse, club, rib, delmonico or filet mignon. Filet mignon is the tenderest of all beef cuts, very expensive and not obtainable in many meat markets. It lacks, however, the flavour of porterhouse. Semi-tender beef steaks are the sirloin or hip steaks and the t-bone. Chuck steaks or round steaks are tough and should not normally be used for outdoor broiling. Buy, if possible, beef which is stamped U.S. PRIME or U.S. CHOICE. You should allow from one half to one pound of meat per person. The steaks should be at least three-fourths of an inch thick to permit thorough browning on the outside without overcooking inside. The best beef has a good layer of outer fat. But you should cut away the outer fat in excess of one-fourth inch before broiling. Gash the sides of the steaks in two or three places to prevent curling. The double wire broiler will also help to prevent curling when the meat is grilled.

Obviously the availability of just about everything has changed in the last 60 years and you can get just about any cut of anything anywhere without too much difficulty. If your steak is of a decent quality and not cut too thinly then there shouldn’t be a curling issue and the ‘gashing’ seems a bit wrong.

As soon as the steaks are done brush them with butter or softened butter mixed with a few drops of lemon juice. Or place a lump of butter on the serving plate and put the steak on top of the butter to make a natural gravy.

Many beef eaters will tolerate no variation on this simple method of cooking. There are some gourmets, however, who are unafraid to look their beef straight in the eye and alter it’s flavour. For instance, you may dip the steaks in soy sauce for a five minute period before broiling to give them a salty oriental soupcon. Or you may sprinkle the steaks generously with freshly ground black pepper before broiling. Force the pepper into the meat by smacking the steaks with a cleaver or the side of a heavy knife. Or mash several large cloves of garlic and steep them in a cup of salad oil overnight. Brush the steaks with this garlic-flavoured oil before broiling. Or mix chopped chives with butter and brush the mixture on the steaks after broiling.

All very sound suggestions, especially the garlic oil!

Getting hep to hamburgers

Don’t buy the chopped beef in the butcher display case. It may be half fat and may include veal or pork besides beef. Buy a piece of inexpensive beef like chuck and ask the butcher to grind it to order. A pound of chopped beef will yield four moderately large patties or six to eight sandwiches.

Chopped beef should be put through the coarse blade of a grinder only once. If it is ground twice, as some butchers insist on doing, it will be pasty and mushy. Hamburgers will be tough and dry if the meat is handled too much before cooking or if the meat is overcooked. To each pound of chopped beef put one teaspoon salt, one 1/8 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 cup of milk or light cream. The liquid insures that the burgers will be moist after cooking. You can grate a very small onion into the meat if you like onion flavour. But if you want to preserve the natural beef flavour, add as little condiments as possible. Prepared barbecue sauce may be brushed over the hamburgers during cooking if you like this piquant, catsupy flavouring.

Shape the hamburgers into uniform portions. Separate them with waxed paper. Chill them well before broiling. Cold chopped meat will not tend to break apart during cooking.

Brush the hamburgers with butter after they are browned. Serve them on freshly toasted split buns. Within arms reach keep your arsenal of catsup, onion rings or hot pepper relish. Pour the beer steadily into big glass steins.

Skewered lamb (shish kebab)

Meat on a skewer may be high class or low class. It depends on the continent in which you are romping. In Greece they eat meat lollipops – meat grilled on a wooden skewer – just like we eat hot dogs here in busy lunch stands. In America the dish is definitely of epicurean standing. Any meat, as long as it is a tender cut – beef, chicken livers, sweetbreads or lamb, may be fastened to a metal skewer and broiled over an outdoor grill. One of the most delicious of these skewered dishes is marinated lamb or shish kebab. The skewers should be turned during broiling for even browning. For four portions you will want: 2 lbs. leg of lamb cut into 3/4 inch cubes, 1/2 cup red wine, 1/2 cup cider vinegar, 1 cup water, 1 bay leaf, 2 teaspoons salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 1 sliced onion and 1 smashed clove of garlic. Put all of these ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Let the meat marinate for approximately 3 hours. Remove the meat from the liquid. Drain well. Fasten the meat on 4 skewers. (You may alternate the meat with wedges of tomato, squares of green pepper or large cooked mushrooms.) Brush the skewered meat with salad oil. Broil over a red hot fire until brown on all sides. Use long tongs or a long kitchen fork for turning the skewers.

Just before serving the shish kebab, brush it with melted butter. Cold dry wine, red or white, should be quaffed before, during and after the shish kebab.

Unadulterated Corn

Corn on the cob should never be more than one day old. At it’s best it is rushed straight from the corn field to the outdoor grill. Dip it in cold water unhusked. Place it over the fire at least four or five inches away from the flame. Let it cook until the green husk turns black. Turn it frequently, babying it constantly, until the husk is charred all round. This will take about ten minutes. Remove the husks with a quick pulling motion. Use gloves if you can’t stand the heat of the corn.

This is absolutely the way to cook corn on the barbecue, if you can’t buy it with the green husk intact then it’s really not worth bothering.

There should be enough sweet butter on the corner so that the butter trills slowly from each side of your mouth. Spray the corn generously with salt. Play the music sweet. Don’t attempt to talk any more than Benny Goodman would try to talk when he has his clarinet in his mouth.

So there we have it, a 60 year old look at the best way to cook a steak and woo your belle. Make of it what you will, personally I give Mr Mario extra points for not putting his burgers in a brioche bun.

One thought on “The Playboy guide to cooking with fire

  • December 3, 2016 at 11:48 am

    “You pour a few dry martinis from a thermos” – Now this is my idea of how to run a picnic!


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