Grilling is a craft, a calling. It’s utterly elemental, tapping into the Olduvai Gorge of the mind. It begins with a fascination with fire. First matches, then seeing my father build a fire in the fireplace, then watching in awe as the older kids in the neighborhood light up a vast arsenal of fireworks on the Fourth of July. Packs of Black Cats, strings of lady fingers, Roman candles triumphantly held aloft in both hands. To this day, my mind can summon the heavy metallic kerrrang of firecrackers exploding in a mailbox and the image of our neighbor Jack, casually walking out his front door, taking a lit cigarette from his mouth, applying it to a fuse, and lofting M-80 after M-80 into the cul-de-sac. Your olfactory nerves never let you forget that gunpowder smell; it’s as evocative as a steak sizzling over hot coals.
Next came after-school excursions into the creek near our house, where my friends and I built fires and “cooked” strips of bacon or hot dogs purloined from the kitchen when our mothers weren’t looking. We ate them off of pointed sticks. My first grill was my father’s grill. It was square with rounded corners—charcoal, of course. It sat on the back patio, ready for use whenever we needed it, whether frigid winter nights or humid summer afternoons. I can still see my dad standing under the stars on a crisp evening, testing the sirloin for doneness, and me standing by, platter in hand.
Grilling is a whatever-it-takes kind of thing. When you feel the urge, you obey it, no matter where you are. I’ve grilled steaks on camping trips in the mountains of northern New Mexico, a whole beef tenderloin on a hibachi beside a lake in Michigan, a whole pig in a friend’s backyard in Mt. Washington (OK, so that wasn’t technically on a grill—but we did have to bury it in the ground). In Hoboken, I regularly fired up that same hibachi on the fire escape outside our kitchen window. My wife still gets a certain glow when she recalls the soft shell crabs I grilled out there one night.
Once, when we were living in Santa Fe, I invited a huge number of colleagues and friends to our house for a “rib off.” I had the foresight to rent a long, rectangular charcoal grill to buttress my comparatively puny Weber kettle (I’ve never been a fan of gas). All manner of ribs—from Kansas City spareribs to Memphis baby back slabs—and other meats were slow cooked and devoured that day. But I spent so much time running around starting the fires, getting people beers, arranging garbage cans, and generally hosting that when the last person pulled out of the driveway, I turned to my wife and said, “We’re never doing that again.” And we haven’t. But I’m starting to think it’s about time we did.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue.
Glasses photograph by Ryan Kurtz