Kage Baker did not like to barbecue. She only rarely even enjoyed eating it.
She could cook a fair treat over an open fire, but she used pots and pans and spits and griddles, and made many more things than charred meat. She said barbecuing was a guy thing mostly, and in any event – she personally did not have the necessary barbecuing gene. So when we went camping we had pan-fried steaks, and fancy potatoes, and sauteed onions and mushrooms; food you had to eat with a knife and fork.
If you camped with Kage, you ate asparagus with hollandaise sauce. By the light of a Coleman lantern.
Some people, of course, do have the barbecuing gene; they can accomplish miracles. My sister Kimberly is one of them, as is her son, Michael. Kimberly has been unfazed by any weird thing people have brought her to grill over charcoal, and she never even considers charcoal lighter: she uses a miniature charcoal burner’s cone with tinder and paper and other flammable stuff, and her barbecue never tastes of petroleum by-products. She has even produced perfect Yorkshire pudding and drop biscuits over an open flame, and baking is THE ultimate skill on a barbecue.
At our house right now, the entire neighborhood is gently perfumed with the scents of iron, and flame, and cooking beef. I’m not sure it matters what you’re actually cooking (we’re having turkey, I think); Memorial Day barbecues smell like broiling beef, whether it’s hotdogs, premium steaks, or something completely non-mammalian. The scent just evolves out of the rising smoke.
It’s appropriate that a holiday dedicated to the memory of our honoured dead should be so characterized by wonderful roasting smells. And after all, Dear Readers: the departed in glory are the point today, regardless of the competing shouts of the mattress sales and beer adverts. It’s for the sake of those who have passed through the worst fires that we send the sweet blue smoke up to the gods; incense and rare spices and fire are what we send aloft in the honour of those who have gone through it all before us.
I think too many people forget that. I hope more people remember. I like to think that the perfumes of love and memory and devotion rise over our houses today.
That’s a ponderous lot to get out of the smell of Kingsford and steak next door, isn’t it? But, you know, it’s those simple, homely things that should remind us most clearly that heroism is a household virtue. The heroes are our own blood and bone and selves. Meals shared with love and grateful memory are the proper province for heroes – they lived and died to make that possible, not for medals and trumpet calls. The laughter of their loved ones around a shared fire are what they longed to hear.
Let’s give them that, as the long hot summer opens up before us. The season of heat and incense is opening like a rose everywhere this weekend. Let’s make sure that it’s an offering of courage and gratitude, not one of hate and strife.
Let’s make sure, Dear Readers, that the flames all burn like roses.
What a magnificent image, Kate. I doubt I’ll ever forget it.
Thank you, Tom.