Though I greatly enjoy it – probably in my top five favorite foods – I have never really excelled at barbecue myself.
My dad built a cinderblock pit back of the house. It was quite a large affair with an oilfield grating grill and we used it often for family get-togethers. When I was older, my pals and I would also use it and those long-ago cookouts were…unusual. We never bought coals because we always had an overabundance of wood from fallen limbs in the back yard. Very often the beer would be gone before the barbecue was done and my father would sit and laugh at us for chewing on charcoal-exterior ribs with bright red interiors. Other times we’d have it waaaaay too hot and would dine that evening on charred bones and bits of blackened gristle and my dad would sit laughing at us again.
I have owned perhaps two pits in my adult life, both cheapo department store gas-fired jobs. Hated both of them with a purple passion. Perhaps due to my lack of experience I conceived these propane-fueled affairs as conceived by an Inquisitor of some kind, a madcap torturer with a keen sense of how to inflict agony. They did not really barbecue as much as they charbroiled from blazing bursts of dripping fat from the meat. You had to cook at arm’s length to avoid singing your facial hair. There was no way to predict these sudden eruptions of flame.
The second pit I bought, I thought was a pretty clever idea, it was one with "lava rocks." These are not related to lava lamps, of course, which do not cook anything except attention spans. These "lava rocks" were supposed to absorb the heat of the propane fire and disperse it evenly, but in the end, all they did was muddle up the whole mess so that it flamed like a volcano for a few minutes then cooled down to virtually room temperature for a few minutes and repeated the whole cycle. This had the net effect of cooking a steak in layers…one cooked, one not…one cooked, one not.
These department store pits also never last long before the element rusts out or the bottom of the pit does, usually when you’re cooking steaks and then the bottom drops out spilling a rusty propane element and hot lava rocks all over your feet, leaving you dancing and trying to turn off the gas bottle before you blow up the patio.
I quit buying barbecue pits after that, bumming barbecue off neighbors and friends instead. It just wasn’t worth the trouble. A buddy of mine has a $20 department store special though that I thought was pretty cool. It was simple, used coals and had a pretty red top. You know how us Indians are, we traded Manhattan for a few pretty beads. I figured, heck, I can’t go wrong for twenty bucks, right?
I arrived home with one of these little jewels Saturday only to find that I had bought the new-improved model. Unlike my pal’s, this one had a little warming rack that raises and lowers when you open the lid, wheels, a grill to hold the coals up and a grill between the four legs to hold your cooking implements. I was quite proud of all this and we arranged a cookout for that evening where we decided we’d do chicken halves. Everyone who has ever bought a raffle ticket for barbecue chicken dinners knows how awesome barbecued chicken halves are, so we figured, why the heck not?
It didn’t take my pal long to realize and point out that while my pit has more bells and whistles than his – ergo, more things to break – it was also only two-thirds as big. And four chicken halves tended to get squooshed down by that fancy-dancy warming rack when you lower the lid. But we were armed and ready with Jack Miller’s sauce (there is no other barbecue sauce, period, end of story, ya folla?), beer in the fridge, ‘tater salad, pork’n beans and garlic bread. Sacre bleu, it was gonna be a feast to make the Puritans envious!
The exact timeline is hard to remember, but to make a long story even longer, three hours later we were staring at a lukewarm pit and four half-cooked chicken halves. Also, my pal and I, much to our significant-others’ disgust, like to get a container of chicken livers and put those in a pot on the grill with a little Jack Miller’s and beer mixed in. You gotta like liver to appreciate this, and I realize most people don’t, but that’s okay, I have similar feelings of revulsion about white beans, so it all averages out. Let simmer on the grill for the duration of the cooking time of most meats, the livers get ready about half an hour or so before the main course, and we nibble on them as appetizers. Mais cher, lemme tell you, that’s some good. Will clear a room, too.
The livers didn’t make it either, remaining slightly warmer than Cheerios and milk by the end of three hours. The only thing eating was the mosquitoes, and by 10 p.m. great flocks of them lit on my tiki torches, breathing in the citronella oil smoke like incense. They would rest on the torches and enjoy the smell before organizing dive-bombing kamikaze raids against us in waves so that there was never even a moment’s relief.
Finally we abandoned the patio and dragged the food indoors, slapped it in the oven at 450 degrees for another hour or so and sat down at least to eat a wonderful meal of potato salad, pork’n beans and garlic bread and whatever fully cooked portions of chicken we could salvage. The liver finally got cooked, too, and was the best part of the whole disaster, if there can be such a thing.
My pal is actually one of the finest barbecue chefs I know, so I claim full responsibility for purchasing a substandard rinky-dink pit and the ensuing pileup. You’ll note now why I never became much of a barbecue chef myself. I make a mean seafood gumbo, great eggplant spaghetti, mind-blowing yellow crookneck squash casserole with shrimp…but barbecue is just too…I don’t know…primordial or something.