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A Fourth of July Barbecue With Neither Flame Nor Smoke : Solar cookers can sizzle the ribs and chicken, replacing coal or petroleum for the holiday cookout in the back yard.


I have a modest proposal for improving the Fourth of July. This one, I promise, is not as radical as the culinary idea proposed by satirist Jonathan Swift in 1729 of serving up Ireland's infants to rich Englishman to simultaneously solve the problems of famine and overpopulation.

But considering the sacred alliance of charcoal and the Fourth of July that exists in the hearts and minds of Americans, my idea may be considered as offensive as Swift's.

Mine has to do with changing the fuel we use for barbecuing chicken, burgers and weenies. I recommend the use of solar energy instead of coal or petroleum for the cookout in the back yard or at the beach or park. Don't be outraged. There are big benefits.

"That would make it a smokeless park," explained Debbie Cornmiller, a journalist who has seen what happens when 1,000 people in a state park do their cooking with homemade solar cookers instead of the old reliable but fume-spewing charcoal grills.

I had called Cornmiller after seeing a TV show about such an event held annually in Tucson. It was so evocative that I had to find out from someone I could trust whether it was for real--all those regular-looking folks having a huge pot-luck cookout without a flame or column of smoke in sight.

"It's amazingly popular. You can't get into the park," said Cornmiller, an attendee.

I was so jazzed by the idea that I could have kept her on the phone for hours devising schemes to take the idea national. How about solar barbecues every Fourth of July or Labor Day or even New Year's here in California--the sun always shines on the First, doesn't it?

But Cornmiller was on deadline, so I let her go and called some people who have been doing a lot of this kind of cooking.

Beth and Dan Halacy are authors of the newest build-your-own-solar-cooker book, so they seemed like appropriate spokespeople.

"You can buy them ready-made, but it's so easy to make one from the instructions in the book," Beth said. "We take ours along on picnics. . . . Ours looks like a suitcase when it's folded up. We like to cook turkeys. We do it a lot," Beth said on the telephone from San Diego, where she and her husband were giving demonstrations. The Denver residents, she a retired music teacher and he an aerospace technical writer, have been "doing it" for 20 years.

There's something about this phenomenon that a newspaper column, and even their book, can't quite convey. But seeing these solar rigs in action--even on TV--does the trick.

"People see a cold dead bird at first" in the solar cooker, said Dan, "and then they come back and say, 'Hey, it's cooking.' " Just like with an ordinary stove, it takes a couple of hours. When you are just frying burgers, it's only minutes."

According to a spokesperson for the Sacramento-based group that advocates this environmentally friendly technique, whenever the TV show about the solar cookout in Tucson is aired, hundreds of requests for plans and kits come in to the 800 number flashed on the screen.

For most Californians, the solar device only makes sense in the context of back-yard barbecues and maybe part of an environmentally slanted holiday cookout. But this sort of cooking has big potential in some places.

This coming Monday, UNESCO is convening a World Solar Summit with the avowed purpose of launching a World Decade for Solar Energy. Aside from the idea of using cheap solar energy for cooking and other purposes and thus not going into hock to OPEC, there's the environmental angle. Every meal cooked without burning something up and polluting the air helps fight global warming.

At this time of year I'm particularly taken with the idea of preparing meals in a manner that doesn't heat up my house.

I mean, the very idea of baking a turkey or, heaven forbid, canning the apricots raining down from my tree, makes me swelter. And pouring lighter fluid on briquettes for the back-yard barbecue is not only unpleasant to experience but contrary to the new clean-air laws.

This solar-powered stuff warrants looking into. I personally think it might even be a patriotic thing to do for the Fourth. Energy Independence Day. Just once a year, for starters.


WORDS: Ventura Bookstore has copies of "Cooking With the Sun" by Beth and Dan Halacy. Published by Morning Sun Press; $7.95.

HOT STUFF: Ready-made solar cookers can be ordered from Real Goods Trading Co., (800) 762-7325, or Solar Box Cookers International in Sacramento, (916) 444-6616.

ON FILM: An 18-minute video report on the annual Solar Pot Luck Cookout, entitled "A Day in the Sun" is available for $15 by calling (800) 352-5449.

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