by Bill Menard
My wife Suzy and I are Italophiles, having spent the past decade and a-half developing and operating a number of Italian-oriented businesses both here in the DC area and in Italy. But despite the numerous influences Italy has had on our lifestyle, perhaps our favorite feature of our home in DC – our backyard fire pit – was inspired by a trip to Zambia rather than Italy.
It was nearly two decades ago that we traveled to southern Africa for a friend’s wedding, an exotic two-week trip half way around the world but without question a world away from our quiet city life in Washington. We spent a week in Zimbabwe, a place we would be a bit shy about returning to today given its current political and social unrest, and another week in neighboring Zambia, staying at one of the more memorable properties we have visited before or since, the Tongabezi Lodge located on the Zambezi river. The lodge is a complex of private bungalows arranged along the Zambezi, each radiating from and connected by walkways to a large main lodge.
Our house – I think it was called the Dog House – was set up like most of the others. You turned off the main walkway and approached the house down a smaller path arriving at its back entrance. And when you entered the bungalow you were immediately struck by its most singular feature: it had only three walls and was completely open to the Zambezi river, allowing you to sit in your easy chair or lie in bed and watch the river, and its complement of hippos and other wildlife float by.
Our son and daughter, then taking a break from elementary school, were surprised one afternoon to have a troop of baboons cross our roof and peer into the open room, leading them to scramble to hide their schoolwork. No one back home would believe them if they said, “the baboons ate my homework.”
Life along the Zambezi was pretty idyllic for the four days we lingered along its banks. But particularly so at night, when we would put the children to sleep and trek back to the main lodge for communal dinner with the dozen or so other guests.
For four nights we compared notes, shared stories and held forth about the wonders of Africa that we were all then just discovering, sitting around an enormous table perched on a terrace facing the river, enjoying wonderful food and speaking, with more or less success, in English, which proved to be a true international language. The dinners at Tongabezi were almost as fascinating as the wildlife and the strange culture of Africa, just as dinners have become a focal point for us in our lives in Washington and Italy.
But the camaraderie, the connectedness and the good will would not have been possible without the singular most amazing feature of the main lodge’s dining area: an enormous fire pit that raged with an orange flame that flickered and danced throughout the evening, casting moving shadows, brightening and fading and providing warmth in the chilly African night air, even from 20 feet away.
What was remarkable about the Tongabezi fire pit was that it was really no more than a giant impression in the cement deck that had been made into the outdoor dining room. It wasn’t so much carved into the deck or even built into it as it was simply pressed into it, as though some giant thumb had simply pressed a three-foot wide concave impression into the deck. And in that impression nightly burned enormous logs the likes of which we had never seen, chunks of wood two feet long and nearly as big around. The effect of this conflagration was mesmerizing, offering a point of interest that visually competed with the river and providing a source of warmth, light and security in the dark African night.
We returned to Washington from our African adventure with a lifetime of memories, but none was as vivid and essential as the sense of well-being that derived from Tongabezi’s fire pit. So, a couple of years later when we decided to do some landscaping work in our backyard, replacing an eyesore asphalt driveway with a swimming pool and installing a deck outside our kitchen, we agreed on one essential design element. Near the area on the deck where our table would go – a beautiful hand-painted ceramic table that we had brought back with us from one of our trips to Italy – we wanted a fire pit.
Nothing along the scale of Tongabezi, mind you, but an area 15 or 20 feet away from the table where we could set a fire and let it burn throughout our outdoor dinners, one that like the fires at Tongabezi could provide warmth, illumination and comfort while we sat yards away in fellowship around the table.
Like Tongabezi, our fire pit was designed not to be the focus of the yard or to dominate the night, but rather to transform the outdoor experience, making it more relaxing, comforting and secure.
Building code would not allow us to simply gouge out an impression in our deck like the one at Tongabezi, but we were determined to keep our fire pit simple and basic.
So we designed a small, not too deep round pit – about three feet wide – and lined the entire perimeter with neutral colored fire bricks. Those bricks run from the floor of the pit and end about a foot above the level of the deck, forming a circular rim that protrudes from the deck, giving form to the simple structure. A small ring of stone encircles the pit before giving way to the deck. Our pit – simple, minimal yet beautiful – looks nothing like Tongabezi’s but it shares one essential thing in common with it. It transforms our outdoor experience.
We built a small shed nearby to stack firewood and keep it safe from the elements (the firewood also fuels our indoor pizza oven that we try to keep as busy as possible) and the chore of making the fire and keeping it stoked has happily been taken up over the years by our children. In fact, while Suzy and I conceived of the idea of building the fire pit, it is safe to say our four children, now all fairly grown, have taken it on as their own, happily building a raging fire at the drop of a hat, inviting their friends to pull up chairs and sit around the fire, occasionally (always) offering the opportunity to roast some marshmallows and make s’mores.
Having the fire pit has subtly encouraged us to entertain outdoors more often than we probably would otherwise do. Birthday parties, engagement parties, anniversaries inevitably end up with our mass of guests lingering outdoors, drawn in large part by the presence of a warm glowing fire. And it doesn’t matter the season or the weather outside; if you build it (a fire), they will come – whether it is 20 degrees or 90. With the addition of an enormous deck umbrella (another useful import from Italy) we are even able to create a dry sitting area and enjoy our fire pit in rainy weather.
Being foodies, it was only a matter of time that our fire pit would be pressed into service for cooking. We started simply at first, roasting marshmallows and occasionally sticking other foods into the fire on a stick. But then my Hawaiian brother-in-law got into the act, seeing not just a fire pit, but visualizing an outdoor barbeque and somehow finding an enormous motorized rotisserie for rent that we were able to set across the pit, allowing us to roast whole animals at a time.
We started with a lamb, have moved on to pig and beef (large cuts, not the whole animal) and just this Thanksgiving spent the better part of the afternoon tending to two large legs of lamb, with parents, children and assorted other hangers-on taking turns basting and stoking the fire. In fact, it is safe to say that our annual Thanksgiving dinner, where we routinely feed more than 50, centers most of the day around the fire pit, regardless of the weather.
And it’s not just at Thanksgiving that we fire up the makeshift barbeque. Each year on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving another brother-in-law arrives with three dozen live lobsters, bags of seaweed and a few burlap sacks and he and the boys proceed to make a blazing hot fire, one big enough to see from space we imagine, and line the pit with rocks. Then the lobsters are placed on a bed of seaweed in baskets made of chicken wire and the whole mass is covered with burlap to steam the lobsters for an hour or so. Needless to say this has become a much anticipated tradition in our household.
As is the grilling of octopus that we do on a simple grate placed over the flames. Or the roasting of oysters, which we tend to do when the weather is coldest and nastiest. We have expanded our outdoor cooking with the addition of an enormous gas grill with side burners that is pressed into service year round, no matter the weather. And recently we added a Caja Cinese, a portable box into which you can place a whole pig, with charcoal placed on top, so that the heat penetrates the box and results in perfect roast pork in a few hours. Such is our outdoor cooking center, all of which grew from the humble little fire pit we built to capture some of the magic we experience on the banks of the Zambezi river.
But no matter how good these delicacies are, there is simply no beating a slab of red meat grilled over our humble fire pit’s open flame. We enjoy it so much and so frequently that my brother-in-law (who initially rented the rotisserie for grilling) went out and had a custom rotisserie made to spec. Now any time we want the ultimate caveman dinner we simply build a fire, tie a roast to the skewer and spend the next several hours basting, cooking, salivating and enjoying.
Over the years we have been to dozens of other houses that have some form of outdoor fire – whether it’s a built-in pit, a formal fireplace or a freestanding chiminea (my brother builds his fires in an enormous kettle that was formerly used for boiling pigs). Somewhere deep inside every one of us we are at our best, our safest, we find our most secure, most peaceful state when we are in the presence of a good fire. And it doesn’t hurt if you can serve some good food to boot.
Forest Hills resident Bill Menard, together with his wife Suzy, owns and operates Bella Italia, a retailer of artistic Italian goods and gourmet foods (bellaitaliaonline.com) and Experience Umbria, which offers food and wine tours in Italy and manages a luxury vacation farmhouse in Umbria, Italy available for weekly rental throughout the year (experienceumbria.com).