Letting My Kids Make Fires

I love Weber grills. I will never buy a gas grill, or even another brand of charcoal grill. It'll always be Weber for me. Webers are the ultimate fire-holders. Seeing a Weber make me think of fire, of course, but not the tame, controlled embers of a cooking fire. I think of the Berkeley-Oakland Firestorm of 1991.

5,000 homes in the Berkeley hills burnt down, including ours. Our home was right at the center. My brother and the neighbor kid had walked up a few blocks to watch the firefighters put out a little brush fire on Saturday. The firefighters left a truck to monitor the site overnight. The boys came back, we slept, then got up to go to church down in the city.

The sky darkened during worship on Sunday morning; we stepped out to find the sun blocked by the smoke. Santa Anna winds had whipped the little brush fire back up. The neighbor kid and his family, we later found out, drove through the flames to escape, the fire had moved so fast.

The dude who created Sims lost his house in the same fire. He saw the same thing we saw when we drove back into the area days later: "There were chimneys and Weber grills — one car was just a big puddle of melted aluminum." I remember my dad pointing out the same thing about chimneys and grills. I was impressed. A fire that melted cars had left the Webers intact.

There's a Weber grill somewhere in this picture.

That's why I'm a Weber man.

It's also why I don't love fire.


Don't misunderstand. I'm completely comfortable sitting by the fire pit in the back yard, staring absentmindedly into the flames. But I don't love fires and fire-making the way some men do.

Being able to make a fire in the wild with only two twigs and a sharpened wit is viewed by many as a vital piece of manly skill. I don't even like to camp, and am satisfied when my firestarters from Publix work. I like grilling well enough, but I prefer a kitchen to a backyard. My skillet-cooked flank steak with chimichurri is amazing, if I may say so.

Still, the feeling I get when I'm tending a campfire or grilling a steak outdoors is one of proud masculinity. And, I think, for good reason. After all, I've tamed the wild fire thing and brought it to benefit my family.

I prefer open flame to embers. Although this shot is a little intense, I keep the flame going through cooking.

Look at that picture. Steak. Ribs. Sausage. Open flame. Delightful. Weber grills work. You make a fire in one, and the grill contains it. But it's not just Webers. Men know how to tame fire. You dig a fire pit, you build a fire, you douse the embers, you go home. The lesson of a disastrous flagration like Berkeley is not "don't touch fire". It's "master it".

Now, some dudes I know are a little obsessed with fire. They're the two-twigs-and-your-wits guys. They don't understand why I'm not all up on fire-making techniques. To them, manly skills are actually post-apocalyptic survival skills. To them, fire skills are basic to manhood.

But they are not. Know what is basic to manhood? Mastering fear and danger for the good of those I'm responsible for. If I make fires, that is why. I don't live in a society where survival is often an issue, so the utility of fire is other for me. It is, in fact, threefold: fire is a culinary bonus, an aesthetic delight, and a pedagogical opportunity.

Yay for pedagogical opportunities!

The photo above is actually my eight-year-old son's fire. I recently had him grill our meat, from cleaning the grill to pouring the charcoal to lighting the fire to cooking the food to cleaning the grill. All under very close supervision, of course. Not only did I need to make sure his shirt didn't explode in flames, but I had to make sure he turned the steaks at the right time. Can't have well-done steak or toasted child.

This is a video of my six-year-old tending a fire I'd started. Mostly it just involved him poking twigs at it, with occasional bits of instruction from me tossed out. Things like "don't mess with the fire too much".

When I was six or so my brother and I used to make paper airplanes and throw them out through the bars of our 13th-story window. One day when all but he were outside in front of the building, he decided to light an airplane on fire before he threw it. Of course, the flames burnt his hands, he dropped the plane, and burnt the carpet. The carpet of an apartment on the 13th floor. He could have killed himself. He could have killed other people.

The other day I was talking to an adolescent boy who had never messed with fire. He wasn't allowed to. Fire was only danger to him. He was awed that my boy would be allowed to touch a grill.

Of course, fire will burn you under any circumstances. Even if you only glancingly touch the stove you can do yourself real harm.

That is its utility in teaching. It is a dangerous thing that men long ago tamed. Sometimes we lose our grip on it and terrible things happen. Using fire is a thing a boy can aspire to, a sign of manly responsibility. He can understand that it is a dangerous tool, that if he learns to use it well, he will be trusted to help the family. He'll grow up just a little bit, and be that much close to being able to make a fire for his own wife and kids one day.

Boys need a little danger. They need a little responsibility. Fire is perfect.


  1. Wow, weird - I just wrote a post mentioning the fire, and the lasting impression it made on me! I hadn't realized that about Weber grills...


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