Jerry Nelson: The barbecue season
The weather has warmed, spring has sprung and a bluish haze hangs in the air. The outdoor barbecuing season has officially arrived.
Outdoor cooking has become the bailiwick of us guys. I think this is because barbecuing involves such manly and dangerous things as slabs of meat, flamethrower-like fires and heavy steel tongs. In other words, it’s very similar to operating a smithy. But if your barbecued meat comes off the grill resembling a hunk of forged iron, you probably need to recalibrate your cooking methods.
When we were newlyweds, my wife attended a rummage sale and brought home a tabletop hibachi grill. She, being more worldly and knowledgeable than me, explained with much enthusiasm that the little gizmo could cook a burger with a single sheet of newspaper. There was no reason to doubt her so we immediately put the hibachi to work.
A pair of hamburger patties were placed upon the grill and a sheet of newspaper wadded up and placed beneath them. We kissed the newsprint with a lit match and waited for the magic to happen.
And waited. And waited some more. The smoldering newspaper eventually flared into a fire that was intense but lasted only about 3 nanoseconds. We checked the burger. It somehow seemed more raw than when we began.
Not the type of people who give up easily, we kept on wadding and igniting sheets of newspaper until the burgers were finally cooked. They weren’t too bad. The meat had smoky nuances of banner headlines along with subtle hints of combusted Dick Tracy comic strips.
Encouraged by this initial barbecuing experience, we purchased a kettle-type grill which supposedly used charcoal briquettes as a heat source. I say “supposedly” because I’ve never been able to get briquettes lit within a reasonable amount of time. Coaxing the briquettes into producing sufficient heat for cooking often took so long that we ran the very real risk of overdosing on crackers while waiting for our burgers.
Of course I used lighter fluid. I’m a guy, so of course I added more and more lighter fluid until the kettle grill came to look like a miniature version of the Hindenburg’s final moments. But the briquettes would remain stubbornly cool to my heated entreaties.
Frustrated by cooking speeds that were similar to the rate of continental drift, we decided to purchase an inexpensive LP gas grill. And by “inexpensive” I mean “cheaply made.”
The gas grill had a clicker igniter thingy, but it soon went kaput. The grill manufacturer had foreseen this possibility and had provided a small hole in the side of the grill where one could initiate ignition with a lighter or a match.
But there was a problem with this process. Before lighting the grill, you first had to open the valves that allowed LP gas to flow into the burner area. The sinister hiss of extremely flammable pressurized gas gushing into an enclosed area always makes me nervous. This, in turn, made it difficult for me to poke a lighter or a lit match through the tiny hole in a timely manner.
More than once, lighting the grill instantly went from a ho-hum event to a heart-pounding happening. More than once, the grill announced that it was lit with a booming “woof!” and a fireball that resembled a small hydrogen bomb. More than once, I had to ask my wife to pencil in new eyebrows for me.
Next on our quest to achieve outdoor barbecuing perfection was something called an offset smoker. This simple device consists of a barrel-shaped chamber which has a smaller barrel-shaped chamber attached to its side. It looks as though it’s trying to reproduce via the budding process.
The idea behind the offset barbecue is that you place lump charcoal in the smaller chamber and ignite it. The ensuing smoke snakes its way through the larger chamber where it cooks and flavors the meat. The smoke then wafts lazily out of a short smokestack and makes a beeline for your eyes.
An offset barbecue is a fine tool but has some drawbacks. The main one is that the small barrel holds only small amounts of charcoal and thus has to be fed more often than a newborn baby. If I’m going to get up during the night to feed anything, it’s going to be me.
Our current barbecue is a pellet smoker. It ignites on command, is controlled by an automatic thermostat and burns non-explosive wood pellets.
Now that the weather has warmed and the barbecuing season has arrived, I will be easy to find. Just look for the source of the bluish haze.
If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.