Like every red-blooded American—even those from “blue” states—I love barbecue. I love it so much I spell out the whole word: b-a-r-b-e-c-u-e. Three letter abbreviations are for posers.
Now, I’m not a purist. I may not “master” the most elaborate “pit.” I don’t geek out on wood chips or dry rub, which sounds more like an unpleasant sex act than a spice blend. I’ll use the verb “barbecue” when I really mean “grill” and vice versa, although I’m fully aware of the difference.
Barbecuing (slow cooking at low temperatures, typically over hot coals) and grilling (faster cooking at higher temperatures, typically over gas burners) are two rare stereotypically “masculine” talents I can claim… along with un-sticking cars from snow and belching on command.
So while I may not be adept at catching, shooting, cleaning, field dressing and/or filleting food, I can definitely take it from there.
My childhood house in suburban New York featured a huge propane grill, custom built by the original owner, a professional brick mason. I can picture it now, set into a massive structure that resembled a sacrificial altar—apt, considering all the burnt offerings my father made there.
Don’t get me wrong. He was a great dad, but he incinerated everything he ever grilled. Perhaps this owed to the Sports Illustrated magazines he’d read in the process; perhaps the vodka tonics he’d consume.
Not that my mom “respected the protein” either. Again, great mom. But her signature dish was meatloaf that somehow managed to turn out blackened on the outside yet raw at the center. The middle slices, with the least surface char, were sometimes a little frozen.
Because this meatloaf was my picky-eating sister’s favorite meal, we ate it every Friday for a decade. Evading it was the prime reason why I became a vegetarian at age 16.
Interestingly enough, this also sparked the mantle passage of family grill-master to me. As a condition of going veggie, my parents insisted I pay for my own “specialty” groceries, which I did, by working as a prep cook at a fried chicken joint, which served to further cement my vegetarianism.
Non-meat grillables are spendy, you know? I couldn’t trust either parent with Portobello mushroom steaks, let alone heirloom tomatoes and Halloumi cheese (which cost like $10 for a six-ounce block, and that’s 1992 dollars). As long as I was caramelizing Vidalia onion skewers, I figured I might as well as cook for my parents, too. Plus, if they weren’t out there, I could sneak a cigarette under the camouflage of grill smoke.
College barbecues emphasized liquids over solids. Still, my roommates and I hosted plenty; I was the only one trusted around open flames. One summer, I worked for a caterer as an on-site grill guy—I still have the super long commercial spatula, a tool that continues to inspire envy in all who behold it.
During my 20s, in a tiny Brooklyn apartment smaller than my current garage, I balanced a George Foreman on the fire escape railing. If I went out on the front stoop, I’d have to talk to the neighborhood crazy guy who used to try to sell me back my own trash.
Today, I’m lucky enough to have a house and family… that I periodically need to escape. Grilling provides the perfect excuse to go outside and drain a vodka tonic (dad was on to something there).
More than that, I take pride in my grilling, similar to the satisfaction of perfectly de-iced front steps, or coaxing a fire from damp logs. Poor performances haunt me, like the gruesome scorching I administered to a bunch of hot dogs at my son’s pre-school picnic six years ago. See, I still haven’t moved past it.
In my bedside notebook, originally intended for late-night story ideas, I wake up feverishly scribbling sudden bursts of inspiration, like slathering a whole chicken with root beer barbecue sauce, then roasting it standing up with an open can of root beer shoved up its deal. Yes, “deal”—that’s a technical term.
Until then, I’ll work toward achieving a more easily fulfilled fantasy, one in which I perfectly sear a steak and cedar-plank a sockeye side while simultaneously soaking in my hot tub.
And my kids are out. And my wife is home. And the bar is fully stocked.
Man, that’d be killer.
• Geoff Kirsch is an award-winning Juneau-based writer and humorist. “Slack Tide” appears twice monthly in Neighbors.