Kage Baker admired those possessed of the barbecuing gene.She didn’t have it. Neither do I. We owned a grille, but it was usually used for rituals or experiments that required an open fire. They rarely involved dinner.
We both liked barbecue, though, so we usually had to wait until talented guests came over. Or we patronized barbecue restaurants. Sometimes we just broke down, and courted smoke inhalation and those weird meals where pieces of perfectly normal meat end up somehow simultaneously raw and charred …
There is usually at least one person in every family who has the barbecuing gene. If you grew up in one of the statistically anomalous families where no adults did, you know what a miracle finding out what good barbecue tasted like can be. Anne has the gene – so does Kimberly. But of course, neither of them was in charge of the grille until they were grown up .
I still recall, in vivid detail, the Albacore Who Would Not Be Cooked. Do you know, Dear Readers, how freaking huge an entire albacore actually is? It easily stretches over two grilles, with an interesting gap between where the wind can gust up and produce sparks, smoke and flaming fish. That was a project of Daddy’s, involving an entire tuna and some 8 hours of barbecuing which resulted in what was basically warm sushi: one humungus sashimi strip 4 feet long. Oh, and pizza for dinner.
This all comes to mind because it is now barbecue season. The entire neighborhood smells deliciously of just-lit charcoal, one of the most Pavlovian-reflex smells I know. It drifts over the streets from everyone’s back yard. Even if you know they are dreadful grillers, or are barbecuing something horrendous like tofu dogs and zucchini, the smell of newly ignited coals is wonderful.
It means summer. Today, it means Father’s Day, of course, but the entire sensorium of summer accompanies it – those days when cold soda, and novelty ice cream (Fudgesickles! 50/50 Bars! Rocket Pops!), and all the watermelon in the Western Hemisphere magically fill the refrigerator and you can eat with your fingers for days on end.
Last night, Kimberly produced really high-end hamburgers and hot dogs: nothing peculiar or fancy, like those unnerving looking meals in ladies’ magazine – just really quality ingredients of a simple meal. Nathan’s hot dogs. Harris Ranch beef. Homemade cole slaw with pineapple added, baked beans enhanced with secret spices. Divine stuff.
Tonight, in honour of my brother-in-law Ray, it will be steaks. Kimberly barbecues astonishing steaks; eating them calls to mind Odysseus’ sailors feasting on the white cattle of the sun – but with no nasty godly side effects. There will be creamed spinach and garlic bread. And the smell of the charcoal, spreading the perfume of forges and black powder and really good food, all tangled up together.
No wonder we still cook over open fires. No wonder the talented barbecuer is a domestic divinity. Even vegetarians do it, as enthralled by the smell of coals and smoke and hot food as any drooling carnivore. It’s just … right. You know? Summer is a season of ritual meals wherein we all worship the miracle of fire.
And then we get to eat it! Pretty magical, pretty cool.