Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Into the Fire

Seasons wash over us inexorably and without fail.  Hot August nights slip into the cooler days of September, and we know that bird hunting and football will soon be on the menu.  The ice softens under our feet as we chance one more wary trip for bluegills, the sun making way for April.  During the long drive home from deer camp many of us stave off the soul-crushing depression of returning to the world with thoughts of hunting pheasants and squirrels in the blustery snows of December.  If time is a human construct, it is in that specific moment that I'd like to meet the guy who invented it, and invent him a cuff upside the kisser.

One season remains immortal, however, nearly unchanged by weather, calendar, or the plight of man.  While it can be challenging at times, and it would be occasionally easier to forgo altogether, it is among the most rewarding of all seasons, and therefore must be treated with reverence.  And a good deal of fun.  While we exist in the sweet, juicy core of it right now, in my world, grilling season lasts all year long.

Before we begin, it must be stated that some part of the fascination with grilling stems from the slightest whiff of pyromania that I think inhabits most of us.  Fire enchants us.  There wasn't fire, then there was fire, then we didn't die.  Pretty simple, really.  We stood up, and while our incisors shrank our brain pans grew, we suddenly became capable of mastering it.  A million generations of your ancestors had to not die at the icy hands of hypothermia or the jaws of some fearsome Pleistocene beastie for you to be sitting here reading this, and fire is directly linked to that happening.  The attraction is programmed within us now.

You can still see those roots, at least in my clan, if you look closely enough.  Men stand around meat over flame, congratulating each other on yet another successful hunt.  Entire families stare contentedly into the prism of glowing embers, conversation lost to rising smoke and the knowledge that we are all fed and safe, at least for tonight.

I was staggeringly lucky enough to be born to a father who held a deep and abiding relationship with the fire and grill for nearly all of his life.  A man who let me play hooky to learn how to build bow & drill fires and cook over a Swedish Fire Torch.  A woodsman who made his own fire-starters out of charred cloth, pine pitch, saw dust, and the little paper cups you used to squish your ketchup into at Burger King (my brother and I would swipe them by the pocketful for him).  We heated our houses with fire, cooked over it, and occasionally had father-son races to see who could build a fire from scratch the fastest, the object being to burn through a length of twine strung between two stakes a foot off the ground.  Only one kitchen match per man was allowed before I was old enough run a flint with any competency, and I seldom won either way.

If my obsession with fire was not honed to a razor's edge by a couple eons of heidelbergensis forefathers surviving, it was pounded into me by a progenitor's obsession.  And if he taught me any one thing, it's that you don't touch another man's fire anymore than you'd touch his wife.


The fascination with flame well established, we move on to the other appeal of grilling.

I'm a Cheesehead.  Did you honestly think the pic wasn't going to be of brats?

...and in the grilling basket with my beloved veggie friends.  Weirdos.

The way I see it, our grilling scenarios break down nicely into three disparate categories.

Firstly, and most often, you have your Home Game.  This is the sanctuary, the place where you grill most often and feel most comfortable.  Ideally, you grab a beer, linger over the licking flames, poking and prodding until all is sublime with dinner and the world.  You can smoke pretty damn good homemade bacon here too, without even really thinking about it.  All spoken like a dude sans progeny, I know.

In any case, this is the place to relax or let it fly as your mood and situation dictates.  You're free to stretch your legs and give 'er, or keep it spartan and simple.  This is where you're welcome to grill every available foodstuff on the planet without recourse or judgement, or simply char a hot dog.  Your call.  In my case, it's where pizzas, ingredients for dip and soups, desserts and salads also get grilled.  They don't play a big part in the next two testosterone-fueled situations, sadly, but they should.  Pistachio stuffed figs... hello?  Even John Wayne would smile after he tasted those.    

Do whatever you want at home.  You want to do a fresh take on easy old school?  Coarsely ground local chuck and sirloin, formed into an imperfect, squat cylinder, stuffed with stanky Blue or stringent aged Cheddar, and slabbed on a toasted kaiser with spinach and fresh, fire-roasted salsa?  I'm in.  You want to get nuts and stuff a lamb shank with the catnip you mistakenly identified as mint down the road?  I'm still in.  I'll bring a cooler, and run the camera for YouTube.  Home is where the grill is.

Secondly in the grilling universe, we have the Away Game category.  Not an away game for your team, but away from the comfort and ease of the homestead.  I do a fair amount of these for the group, mostly tailgating, and I keep them unabashedly simple.  Badger football at home, under twin buttresses of turning leaves and the magic of a college football Saturday, or the beloved Pack in sheets of driven snow, I have exactly four menus in the playbook, and I rotate them blatantly without regret or shame.  A few big flank steaks, nice and rare, with some grill-marked ciabatta and a short selection of sauces made beforehand at home to complete belly-warming sandwiches... maybe, just maybe, some caramelized onions or roasted peppers if I'm liking the boys that weekend and it isn't too cold for my hands -- that one seems to be the prevailing favorite. 

Our last scenario of the three is the Camping Setup.  There was a time when I would scoff at the very thought of calling drinking beer around a fire in state forest, or even more embarrassingly, yards from the trucks in a state park "camping," but alas, that time has passed.  It seems to be all that we as a group can muster anymore, and even then, not very frequently.  This is where worlds collide on top of the fire.

You have easy access to a cooler, full of all the ingredients you wish to bring, screaming for you to go overboard with the meal plans.  You also have no idea what the physical setup of the fire and/or grilling station will be.  The Furies are tempting you into a dance that will mostly likely end in your terrible demise.

There is an old stainless grill grate with impossibly weak, little fold-out feet in the basement directly below me as I type this.  I won it in a Boy Scout .22 rifle competition as a kid, decades ago, if you can believe that.  It remains in a backpack there strictly for this situation.

Honestly, when I'm heading to a campsite in a park with a cooler and a possibly sketchy grilling setup, I bring dinner prepackaged in little foil pouches.  Toss them in the coals, and be done with it, no grate necessary.  But inevitably, somebody arrives with frozen grocery store patties or chicken breasts, and no idea what to do with them, and that old reliable, apparently invaluable, BSA grill grate saves their evening one more time.


Let us conclude with the Manifesto Portion of this post.  This should piss a few people off.

Gas grills are wrong.  An abomination.  An insult to cows and pigs and chickens everywhere.  It is a bold generalization, probably overstated and not always true, but it's how I feel, justifiable or not.  If you fire your dinner over propane, God bless you.  This is not meant as a judgement of your character, though it may be a judgement of your judgement.

I understand the appeal.  All the brushed metal and big fancy knobbery... and you saw that celebrity chef glazing pork chops on one under a lens filter they hadn't used since a Playboy shoot circa 1978.  Cool.  Shelves and sinks and that snappy little piezo-electric start jolting across the millennial abyss from cave painting to garden party in an instant -- I get it.  Gas grills are convenient and fast, relatively clean and easy.  And they taste like it.

I ask that you show me one instance of anyone ever, in the history of the universe, winning a major grilling or barbeque contest on a competitive circuit while using propane.  Post it in the comments if I'm wrong.  I'm wrong all the time.  I have no trouble with that.

Not that such contests are the defining measure of cooking with fire.  I would make a convincing argument that they are, in fact, the stark antithesis of such.  I simply posit that not one competitor has won a nationally recognized competition over strictly gas because we all know the flavor produced is inferior to that produced using charred hardwood chunk.  When the crying's done, we're only talking about flavor here, after all. 

I'm a purist and a bit of a Luddite, I'll admit.  You got me.  That combination lends itself to a touch of zealotry sometimes.  I much prefer the taste of meats (and fruits and veg) off a hot lump charcoal fire, that's all.  If you can't tell the difference, you're not paying attention or you've never been blessed with the chance to try.  And that's a shame.  I won't turn away your gassed food at the graduation party or wine tasting.  I will remain picture of decorum, happy to be amongst friends -- I'm a true believer, not an ass.

Lastly, however you see fit to grill your meal, keep your grates clean.  Just because we're firing like cavemen, doesn't mean we should practice their grill hygiene.


  1. Yup, grilling season is always open and there are no limits.................

  2. You said fancy knobbery.

    PS. Jason is a big coal grill guy also. No gas grillin' at our house.

    BA - out.


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