01/24/2011 05:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Grilling Greener (And Cooler, And Cheaper) In Your City


You're an urban gourmet, versed in the latest restaurant and locavore jargon, but every once in a while your reading takes you to more primal scenes, like those described by Argentinian master Francis Mallmann in grill recipes that read like love letters to flame. You think:

1. "Damn that's cool." Followed by:

2. "Can I do that? Where the hell would I find firewood?" And finally:

3. "Maybe I'll just stick with gas. Clean (says so on the can), convenient (says that too) gas."

Let's start with number 2.

Recalibrate your city senses for leafy subjects. Look around. From Detroit to the capital our population centers are dotted and ringed by parks, all anchored by greenery large and small. Every verge that can fit a towering oak has one. America's cities are full of trees, and they rain kindling onto the ground just like they do in the country.


Now, stare out the bus window on the way home like you always do, but scan for something you might normally only notice at the dog park(no not that). A modest quarry - you're seeking naturally shed twigs and branches. They're an easy light for the grill and in endless supply. Once your eyes get the game you'll notice the sticks automatically. Before long you'll absently stoop for good ones as you pass.

New behaviors come at a cost. You'll definitely be spotted carrying your laptop bag in one hand and tree branches in the other. Own it. A neighbor's chuckle is a small price to pay for a quantum leap in urban cookery. Besides, if city folk can get used to carrying little bags of feces around en masse a couple longish sticks will be quickly forgiven.


There are precious few things you need to know as you embark on city wood gathering. One is to avoid pine. Conifers are loaded with pitch, burn like a coal furnace and belch black smoke like one too. Another is that branches from ornamentals are either a culinary revelation or terminally weird, so give them a pass until you're ready to experiment. Never use painted or treated lumber. On balance most natural hardwood branches will outflavor the best in packaged charcoal - just sniff the smoke before you put food over it to make sure your twigs smell like you'd want dinner to taste.

The city caper gets better still. Your government and utilities must maintain the most ancient trees. A couple times a year fleets of trimmers in cherry pickers take to the streets, cutting limbs away from power lines and felling the dead or dying. Most of these guys are contracted foresters who will have to remove, via chipping or hauling, the tons of wood they've cut. They are tree people, not jaded civil workers. Give them a wave, explain your love of good firewood and you're virtually guaranteed a smile and a stack of larger-format grill wood produced by your own neighborhood's trees -- and it's free, by golly. In fact by taking it you've saved the city (and the environment) fuel; an honest carbon reduction.


When it's time for dinner, intercept the neighborhood rag on its trip from the front step to the recycle bin and use it to light small twigs. Add larger pieces once things are going, then let them burn down enough to safely grill over a small flame. Someday you may graduate (plug warning) to a fancy wood grill, but nearly any charcoal cooker can do the basics. When all is done dump the totally organic ashes in your compost or vegetable planter. Eventually you can grill the resulting crop over more neighborhood wood. Number 1 confirmed - it really is cool.

Oh yes, and when eco-terrorist dinner guests rain on your parade by complaining of particulate pollution and carbon release, shut them up with these gems: city sticks release exactly as much carbon in fire as would be if they were left to rot on the ground, and far less than if they were trucked off. Trace particulates sure do make their way out, but they're largely responsible for the real goal in all this - nuanced smoky flavor. Living necessitates a footprint, and the CO2 released killing your buzz does as much environmental damage as a little grill fire.

Wood grilling - seen so often as an exotic, dirty or inconvenient method - is actually very close to a perfect win for intrepid urban epicureans.

And what about number 3?

Easy? Yes. Clean? Look up fracking.