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What About Kebab? This Fourth of July, don't let your meat and vegetables off without a thorough grilling.

Riot Grrrill

Role reversals are only part of the political shape-shifting that occurs when cooking leaves the kitchen on the Fourth

By Christina Waters

Laugh if you will, but I'll betcha a truckload of Enron stock that sometime this holiday weekend you'll find yourself face to face with an outdoor grill. The Fourth of July holiday has become the unofficial kickoff for those fiery, smoky, charred experiences we call barbecues. That's where a fire is set, coals go from black to fuzzy white and eventually to red, at which time some slabs of marinated something are thrown upon the grill. You should be able to smell the mesquite smoke right about now.

But the outdoor summer grill season brings with it a set of new culinary issues. During the cooler months, cooking most often occurs in a room called the kitchen, where the application of heat is presided over by a matriarch. Men cruise by the stove from time to time, wondering loudly when the food will be ready. Such comments get them kicked out of the kitchen and sent back to their (a) TV, (b)computer, (c)garage or (d) all of the above.

But with the start of Summer Vacation, the cooking action moves outdoors. And suddenly, men take charge (very roughly speaking), grab the tongs and start messing with the Weber. This is often a smooth transition, since the primary food preparer is usually happy to share dinner chores. So while the matriarch--let's call her "Mom"--works on the salad and some fresh fruit, the new alfresco cook--let's call him "Dad" (assuming he's not in a state institution, or permanently out of the country)--starts getting the fire ready.

Now, "getting the fire ready" sounds simple. After all, even Cro-Magnons knew how to rub sticks together until those tiny chips of bark and leaves caught fire. But consult your own experience. How many times has that fire really been ready anywhere close to the time announced? Usually that second bottle of Zinfandel has already been quaffed by impatient guests. Somehow getting those coals ready always takes longer than anyone remembers.

Here's where kids start developing strange Freudian complexes and identity crises due to the role switch between usually competent mom and usually culinarily challenged dad. Suddenly, here's dad wearing the apron, dousing those coals with a few too many squirts of lighter fluid (ugh! the flavor) or simply walking away at a crucial moment in this process and coming back an hour later. Only to find that the coals never really got started and that the filet mignon and shrimp kebabs will have to be "finished" in the microwave. Often guests who are stewed to the gills because the wine course has lasted way too long, often these same tanked dinner guests won't care whether that steak has actually been cooked or not. Raw meat and margaritas--an old Sacramento tradition.

The annual Fourth of July barbecue allows children to form important life skills. They learn not to interfere when Daddy brings that platter of incinerated game hens to the table. They learn to detect subtle signs of displeasure as Mom attempts to identify the original food item under its layer of thick soot. They develop a lifelong fondness for carcinogens of all types, from liquid smoke to well-done hamburger. On the up side, for unfathomable reasons almost anything tastes suddenly great when slathered with an oil, vinegar and spice marinade and then grilled over hot coals. Children have been known to call for "More zucchini, Mom!" during such barbecue situations. Even if the steak is raw in the center, it's delicious. Even if the pork chop is a bit, well, chewy, it delivers irresistibly heightened flavor. And corn on the cob is at its most glorious when simply thrown on the grill, with or without its green husks, for just a few minutes. The aromas are fused with some of our happiest, messiest moments. The best part, transcending even the invariable fiasco, is eating those fresh-from-the-grill salmon steaks, or portobello mushrooms, or especially such nitrite-laced fare as hot dogs, right there in front of the fire. In its glow we are carried back to an easier, sweeter time. A time of endless summer.

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From the July 2-9, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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