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The Fire Book Project - Intentions

The fire project originated at 194 Elizabeth Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy, in the kitchen of chef Frank De Carlo’s restaurant Peasant. Owned by De Carlo and his wife Dulcinea, the establishment is particularly notable for its kitchen, which was built by the chef himself and is fueled entirely by wood: oak for the range and fruit tree for the rotisseries and the oven. As the name indicates, Peasant serves a simple, crude kind of food, brought sizzling and boiling to the table in nearly incandescent red ceramic dishes, not unlike the bricks that constitute the kitchen’s hearths and the building itself. It is from this former garage, converted from auto mechanics to rotisserie mechanics, that Hans Gissinger is undertaking his voyages and his research of ignition. His objective is to bring together in one book the landscapes, legends, techniques and portraits of interpreters of fire.

The book’s narrative carries the reader to the other side of the world: from wild Strobolian fire to the mud bowls and geysers of Yellowstone, by way of the desperate sparks of the Inuits of James Bay, who have only seal fat in which to simmer the animal’s flesh. We also discover the great domesticated fires of the brickyards of northern France and the hot sandstone that Mongolian shepherds place in the carcasses of goats and sheep to cook them from the inside-out. We follow auto mechanics in Benin, worthy descendants of the blacksmith princes described by Mircea Eliade in The Forge and the Crucible, who melt down mechanical parts to repair cars that donÂ’t meet up to European security standards. Like a fuse along which a spark runs, the thread of the book brings together strikingly different worlds to make sense out of technique and put it into perspective. The project draws parallels between different stories and extensions dealing with fire that have no apparent direct links. This characteristic distinguishes Hans Gissinger’s esthetic approach from an anthropologist’s scientific approach. After each of the itineraries that transports the reader around the world, the book invariably makes its way back to Peasant. Each time, the immensity of the subject is brought back to Frankie’s cooking, as if the tiny flame constantly flickering under the chef’s pot contained in itself the entire history of fire.

For example, after a trip to Yellowstone park where we considered volcano, we come back to the Peasant and eat quails. Then the book takes us from The Peasent to Argentina, to the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where we witness the convolutions of tango dancers?the heat, the desire of interlaced couples, linked for just one dance.

Hundreds of kilometers away, in the pampa of Villa Ruiz, an asado con cuero is prepared for a village feast. Argentina is the world’s leading consumer of meat. There, the cooking of meat is more than a simple barbecue: it is an art, a national sport as primordial as football.The Asador has the heavy responsibility of cooking the meat. He alone holds the secrets of the master roaster and only transmits them reservedly to those who deserve it. Asado con cuero means ?to roast with the hide.? It is a cooking technique developed by gauchos, Latin American cowboys who lead their herds across the infinite grasses of the plain. They are the descendants of great 18th-century Spanish familiesÂ’ sons, sent to the New World to save their honor. Having become vagabond cavaliers, these beatnik ancestors took advantage of nature’s generosity and the manna of very abundant wild livestock. ?Living off of the animal,? in the great wide open, they developed a very light camping cuisine. The animal, be it cow or sheep, is de-boned, then laid on a metallic grill (on old window bars). It is seared on the fleshy side, then on the hide, and left to slowly simmer preserved in its own fat. Sometimes the Asador places a few sheets of corrugated metal to create an oven where charcoal will cook for nine hours along with the dozens of kilos of smothered meat.

As a counterpoint to Hans Gissinger’s photographs, short texts will deliver the details of fire, each in its own way. Their stories are contemporary or historical, real or imaginary. Parallel to the images, they recount the romanticized and fiery destinies of great names in history: that of Saint Lawrence, patron saint of rotisseurs and libraries; the biologist Pliny the Elder; Thomas Edison, inventor; Yves Klein, conceptual artist and inventor of the fire painting; and many others. Through this mix of text and image, the reader will see how the project is inhabited by the warmth of its subject.