It warms, it cooks, it illuminates. Fire is central to our lives, and it’s not too far a stretch to say that it is our use, mastery and – dare I say it – worship of fire (and the high-tech advances on the same theme) that define us as human.
Fire holds a significant place in legend, mythology and religion. Like the Greek mythological hero Prometheus, who ‘stole’ fire from the sun in a hollow reed and brought it to humans, and the phoenix, a sacred firebird found in the mythologies of the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Hindu and Native Americans, among others. Here is a bird that, after living a long life, plunges into a fire of its own making and dies, only to rise from the ashes and start the process all over again.
In Christianity, fire is often seen as a symbol of holiness and God’s presence, and ‘tongues of fire’ as the Holy Spirit. In Judaism, the ‘continuous fire’ that needs to be ‘kept burning on the altar’ is said to speak of the eternal flame of the Jewish tradition and their ancestors. In Hinduism we have Agri, the fire god; Yagna, which refers to any ritual done in front of a sacred fire; and Theemithi, the religious practice of walking across a fire pit in exchange for a blessing. In Chinese philosophy, fire is ‘yang’ in character, its motion is upward and its energy expansive, and in Chinese medicine it is associated with the negative emotions of hate and the positive emotions of joy. Freud is said to have seen fire as ‘an aspect of the libido representing forbidden passions’, and today motivational speakers and self-help books talk of awakening our ‘inner fire’, our passion for life. To quote Ferdinand Foch, French military strategist: ‘The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.’
Fire has been around for millennia, with fossils of charcoaled plant matter from around 420 million years ago proving this point. But it was the control of fire by early humans that was a turning point in human evolution, providing a source of protection from predatory animals, warmth in colder environments, and the revolutionary practice of cooking food. A sense of sharing was created by the communal task of gathering firewood, of cooking together and sharing meals. It meant that activities could extend into the hours of darkness, and the fire became the central point where cooking and social interaction took place. It is surmised that the increased amount of social interaction led to the development of language – and our language reflects the importance of fire to us, even now. Think of terms like ‘fireside chat’, the ‘kindling’ of ideas (where do you think Amazon got the idea for naming the Kindle?), ‘keeping the home fires burning’, and the delightful Afrikaans idiom, Ons sit nie langs dieselfde vuur nie (‘we don’t sit by the same fire’) to gently infer that you don’t get on with someone.
Unlike our early ancestors, we modern humans have perfected the ability to create fire, and are no longer reliant on the time-consuming task of rubbing sticks, or bashing rocks together. We can light a fire with one strike of a match (well, a boy scout can) or the ‘flick of a bic’ – or even just the turning of a switch. And we don’t have to go outside to chop down trees. We can pop to our local supermarket and pick up a bag of pre-chopped wood, complete with kindling, for the kind of fire that provides warmth and comfort. And for cooking, it’s a bag of charcoal and a box of firelighters – what could be simpler?
Our warmth no longer comes from an open fire in a pit in the ground – we’re blessed with a choice of ‘hardware’ to suit every taste and decor style, from an open wood-burning fireplace beneath an elaborate mantlepiece to freestanding options made of cast iron or boilerplate steel, and highly efficient closed combustion fireplaces that keep mess to a minimum. Should the thought of actually burning bits of dead tree not be your style, then there are gas and electric options where the flick of a switch will give you clean, clear, dancing flames without the residual ash and soot. Whatever your choice, there’s nothing like a fireplace to add warmth and ambience to a social gathering on a chilly winter’s evening.
With all the mod cons in our kitchens, we certainly don’t need an open fire for cooking purposes, but we do need the whole experience that goes around open-fire cooking. It’s not just the traditional chops and wors. Some very sophisticated – even vegetarian and vegan –dishes are greatly enhanced by being cooked on an open fire, and nothing can beat the camaraderie of sharing a few drinks around the fire while dinner cooks to perfection.
When it comes to what you actually make that fire in, the choices are endless. We’ve moved beyond the ‘plonk the grid on the coals in a half gallon drum’ DIY options to a huge range of products that include classic portable charcoal braais, compact Webers, customised pizza ovens and fancy built-in wood- and charcoal-burning braais complete with ovens, potjie stands and more. Gas is also an option – but not for the purists. For me, nothing beats the charred flavour of meat cooked on an open fire – or the ‘dodge the smoke dance’, cheerful banter and social vibe that always accompany a good old South African braai.
Perhaps it’s our need to connect with the past, or to foster communication in these hectic days of to-do lists and work commitments, that has seen the rise in popularity of the fire pit – which is essentially a campfire in our own back yard. Here again, the options are endless. Whether it’s a simple pit in the garden surrounded by tree stumps, a purpose-built structure that puts your construction skills to the test or a fancy cast-iron fire box, the purpose is the same: to nurture the age-old tradition of storytelling, of real communication, and the sharing of life experiences.