Grillin’ and chillin’

By Wendell Fowler

Our primal urge to cook food over fire is deeply rooted. If you can outrun it, then kill it, cook it and eat it. And that applies to plant foods too, except they don’t run. Our early ancestors discovered fire and used it to spit-roast meat and root vegetables, stay warm, ward off predators and venture into harsh climates. The oldest evidence dates back 300,000 – 400,000 years, associating the earliest control of fire with Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.

If you are the family grill master who has survived or is worried about cancer, I don’t mean to grinch your picnic, but Nutrition Review and countless highly trustworthy sources all agree: cooking meat too close to open flame creates a black, carcinogenic black char. The National Cancer Institute urges avoiding direct exposure of meat to an open flame and lengthy cooking times, especially at high temperatures, can prevent formation of cancerous elements.

This is a serious matter. So serious that researchers are currently investigating the association between meat intake, meat cooking methods and cancer risk. Ongoing studies include the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II, the Multiethnic Cohort, and studies from Harvard. Similar population research is being conducted in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study.

Chef Wendell’s tips to enhance the grilling experience:

  • Raise the grill so meats aren’t licked by flames.
  • Slow down and enjoy the moment.
  • Remove charred portions.
  • Cut produce into large enough chunks or you’ll obliterate it.
  • Brush with oil and grill sliced pineapple, peaches, bananas, peppers, asparagus and zucchini directly on the grates.
  • For smaller fruit, use a grill basket or bamboo skewers soaked in water to prevent food falling onto the coals.
  • Because of their lower sugar content, veggies can stand a slightly more intense fire than fruits.
  • Baby red or Yukon gold potatoes come our better when parboiled before grilling so they will cook through without burning.
  • Toss veggies or mushroom caps with oil, salt and pepper before cooking over medium heat.
  • Cut avocados in half, remove stone, brush with oil and place on a hot grill, green-side-down for several minutes to create grill lines. Drizzle with lemon salt and pepper and eat out of the shell with a spoon.
  • Lightly salt eggplant about 30 minutes before grilling to draw out moisture and concentrate flavor.

Your holy temple/earth suit loves you. Love it back.

Chef Wendell is a lecturer and food journalist. Contact him at