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Illustration by Cindy Couling

Search for the Holy Grill

Summertime and that barbecue hormone is turned up full blast--hence the thinking woman's guide to grilling

By Christina Waters

WHAT FOLLOWS--a completely true story about summer barbecues--in no way set out to rip and shred the myth of male outdoor cooking prowess. It just sort of turned out that way. In this discussion about the compulsion to cook outdoors over a fire, we will discover how, why and under what conditions grilling is actually safe enough to be performed by men. Otherwise, we need to face the facts. Women have been the keeper of the flames ever since the early cults of Isis. Originally the temple guardians were men, and to them was entrusted the relatively easy task of keeping the sacred fires burning. It was a simple matter of adding more olive oil to the holy lamps when they began to run low. Not simple enough, it seems, for the male acolytes, who had gotten involved in a pick-up game of javelin-tossing during one of the big religious festivals. The worst happened. The priests left their posts to place a few friendly bets on the home team, and the sacred flames flickered. And went out--out cold.

This scenario has been repeated on countless patios and decks ever since those days. So much so that today's grill guardians are invariably female. If you balk at the suggestion that the keepers of the Weber are women, I invite you to dial in one of your own family memories. Remember when Dad was no longer allowed to light the coals?

Here's how it went at my house. Nolan Ryan was well on his way to pitching a shutout. Was the fire ready? my mother sweetly inquired. My father jumped up from the TV and rushed out wielding a can of charcoal lighter. Something went dreadfully wrong, and not until the eighth inning did my mother notice that the coals were still lukewarm--i.e., not white-hot, not capable of melting butter, much less of searing a marinated chicken breast. That was the summer my father's tongs were retired.

Between the first taming of fire that occurred in roughly 500,000 BCE and the rise of Neanderthals around 75,000 BCE, our human ancestors discovered the joys of outdoor cooking. Meat they'd happily eaten raw for all those millennia was brought to full, flavorful glory by proximity to heat. Male grill mythology could stem from the cave-era bond between the hunter and his catch. Responsible for procuring that huge slab of bison, our cave hero was seen as the official host of the weekend-long food fest that sprang up around the campfire.

The association of males and outdoor cooking received media reinforcement during the dark ages of recreational camping, in which "real men" (e.g. Hemingway) lived for days in the remote wilderness, relying only on their wits (and a few six-packs). Although today's 4-by-4s can carry a guy and his ice chest filled with Costco hors d'oeuvres directly into the outback, the myth persists.

Even granting this questionable folk ideology, a more basic problem remains. Incapable of multi-tasking, men were perceived as grill kings because grilling was considered a primitive skill. Mere child's play. You just keep the fire from going out. But what about also making sure that the food actually cooks--or, conversely, that the food doesn't burn?

Males are able to actually start fires. But keeping them lit involves an additional layer of attention. If you add to that the need to cook the food, you've got multi-tasking way beyond the ability of all but a handful of men. And those men are the attorneys for Microsoft.

A quickie clarification: Grilling--where you quickly sear slices of meat, vegetables and fish over hot coals--is not technically barbecuing. Barbecue--where you slow-cook large roasts and birds over smoking hickory chips while basting profusely--is a form of culinary religion practiced most authentically in Kansas City, North Carolina and most parts of Texas.

Since nothing tastes as good as a burger, or an ear of corn, fresh from the grill, we all continue to try our hand at outdoor cookery. Turning those skewers laced with lamb, peppers and mushrooms reminds us of some archetypal yesteryear, of a hot meal at the end of a long day's ride, of sleeping out under the stars listening to the crackling poetry of a campfire. From the lowly hot dog blistered into juicy blackness to a marinated swordfish steak cooked over fancy hardwood, outdoor grilling is frankly irresistible.

The word barbecue comes from a 17th-century encounter between starving Spaniards and clever natives of the Caribbean, who showed the Europeans how to smoke meat on wooden lattice spits. The Carib word for this wood-fired gastronomy was boucan, corrupted in French into buccaneer, and rendered in Spanish as barbacoa. Barbacoa became barbecue.

Still, in California at least, we often interchange the words "grill," as in "We're going to grill fresh salmon tonight," and "barbecue," as in "My husband's barbecue privileges were revoked when he incinerated $85 worth of aged Niman steaks."

So enamored am I of outdoor grilling, and of the exuberant flavors produced by quickly cooking seafood and pork chops over red-hot coals, that I fire up my trusty Smoky Joe several times a week during the summer. Building fires brings out the 10-year-old pyromaniac in me--as well as memories of hippie-era backpacking in the Sierras. So I'm the official fire starter in my house.

With two-inch tombo steaks marinating in garlic and balsamic, and a glass of zinfandel at my side, here's how I do it:

  • First, two things to remember: Mesquite produces a haunting, light perfume--I never use anything but mesquite charcoal. And forget about lighter fluid unless you actually crave the taste of butane.

  • Wearing big leather gloves, take regular fireplace kindling and carefully chop it (yes, with a hatchet) into slender twig-sized lengths that fire can easily consume. Think of grilling as a Zen practice--relax and meditate on each time-honored movement.

  • Crumple up newspaper (not the one you're reading, of course) to fill the bottom of the grill kettle. Then arrange some of the kindling on top like a teepee. Holding your wine glass in one hand, light the newspaper. Enjoy the effect. At regular intervals, feed more of the kindling into the flames, until (after roughly 10 minutes) there's enough of a mini-bed of coals to light the mesquite.

  • Arrange mesquite charcoal into a loose pyramid (about one-third of a bag) in the kettle on top of the kindling coals. Fan the coals until they smoke vigorously. Continue sipping the zinfandel until the glass is empty.

  • Once the mesquite coals are nice and white--at least 45 minutes later--replace the grill (which you've cleaned and oiled), wait a few minutes for it to heat up, and then add the food.

  • Turn once with tongs, do not pierce with a fork. When everything is done the way you like it--remember that meat continues to cook after removal from the fire--take inside and devour.

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  • From the June 28-July 5, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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