Every four years, the United States does three things: has a twenty-ninth day in February, participates in the Summer Olympics and elects a new president. Well, not always a new one. Sometimes we simply dust off the old one for another four years.
The first two events came and went without much impact, but this election thing has gotten downright hostile, with all of the maturity and substance of a backyard pup tent campout. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if one of the candidates Dutch-ovens the other one during the first debate, thus setting up a noogie rebuttal.
I’m here to tell you that my vote will probably cancel out yours, and outside of that, there is no way on Earth I’m going to talk about politics. My plan today is to talk about something other than politics, something that plants people firmly on one side of the fence or the other.
I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, “But Rick, what’s more important than American politics?” Two things. Grilling outside and eating food that has been grilled outside.
We seldom use our stove or oven in the summer. That’s why grills were invented, so that we could buy food in a grocery store and cook it outdoors over an open flame, as the suburban cavemen once did.
Our workhorse gas grill was purchased around fifteen years ago and made the move in one piece from our previous house to this one. Outside of normal cleaning, I replaced the grates once, and given that we grill almost year ‘round (depending on how deep the snow is), that’s not bad. We go through about three tanks of propane each calendar year, and get them refilled right around the corner for ten dollars. It’s a no-fuss, no muss method of cooking, other than when the old grill burst into flames. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but more on that later.
Now, let’s get on with the politics of grilling.
People who grill outdoors are divided into two very distinct categories—those who grill with gas, and those who grill with charcoal. I could grill the best steak in the world to perfection on my gas grill, serve it to a dedicated charcoal griller, and they would politely ask if I had cooked the steak on the engine block of my lawn tractor.
I used to have a classic Weber charcoal grill, but the hassle of buying charcoal and getting the coals ready got a little tiring. I would pile about ten pounds of briquettes in a chimney device, stuff the bottom with newspaper, and then light the newspaper on fire and wait. I would stand there impatiently, looking as if I recently pushed a minecart full of coal out of the bowels of a 19th-century colliery, waiting for something to happen. Much smoking would ensue, but in about twenty minutes or so, the edges of the briquettes were finally tinged with white. I would then dump the charcoal lumps on the lower grate and blow on them until I passed out on the driveway. The effort I put into blowing on these stubborn briquettes was equal to that which one would use to inflate an Olympic sized inflatable pool only ashier.
Of course, I’m kidding. Mostly. I blew on them a few times before I finally gave up and emptied half of a can of lighter fluid on the smoldering charcoal. I then stepped back into my neighbor’s yard and launched a flaming arrow at the grill, setting off a mushroom cloud that could be seen all the way to the equator. Fifteen minutes later, after the barbecue pyre had settled down to a simmer, the burgers were ready to cook, which had to be done quickly before the charcoal turned into a desiccated mound of slag. The whole process took more time and effort than getting in the car and driving to a burger joint.
Charcoal grillers will argue about the nuances of flavor that charcoal grilling brings to the food, which is a load of twaddle. Charcoal provides the heat but wood provides the flavor, so unless one is grilling over applewood logs, I’m not buying it. There are a lot of flavors that come from fat dripping on the heat source, and that smoke adds the “cooked over a fire” flavor to the food. Food doesn’t know the difference between charcoal flame and propane flame. A good gas grill does a perfectly fine job of sending smoke back up to the food without all of the charcoal mess, plus the spontaneity and evenness of gas cooking can’t be beat.
As for the impromptu fire mentioned earlier, something inside the belly of the old grill had cracked while I was grilling mushroom/Swiss hamburgers, causing the normally controlled flames to flare wildly. I shut off the propane and gave the whole thing a robust dousing with a fire extinguisher. I wheeled old faithful to the curb and bought a new, slightly larger grill the next day.
The burgers were unharmed and delicious.