We live in a divided nation. And the split goes way deeper than politics.
What I’m talking about strikes at the very core of summer cooks: gas vs. charcoal.
Fans of each type of grilling fuel defend their choices with the venom of politicians on Twitter at midnight.
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Gas fans paint charcoal grillers as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who have more lighter fluid than good sense. That their cooking skills consist of: get meat, fling on grill, sit in lawn chair with beer until it incinerates.
To charcoal devotees, gas grillers are sissies who refuse to connect with their deep primal natures. They want to flip switches on their shiny outdoor kitchens, artfully arrange eggplant slices and asparagus spears and post shots on their Instagram feeds. Then hustle indoors to watch Netflix until the timers on their phones go off.
I state proudly that I am a charcoal girl and have been since birth.
When I think of my father, I see him standing beside a smoke-belching metal object. His first grills were black metal bowls with no adjustable racks, which required attention to heat, briquet placement and timing for good results. I witnessed the ceremony of a match hitting lighter fluid-soaked briquets, followed by orange fire shooting into the air, with the reverence of seeing the Olympic flame ignited.
Fire good, that was our motto.
Over the decades, he stayed ever true to charcoal. In the 1970s, he got a grill with an electric rotisserie attachment. Through the tempered glass window on the cover, we watched whole chickens or racks of ribs rotate slowly on the spit, dripping my father’s special sauce onto the hot coals, causing little spits of flame. He kept a plastic sprinkler bottle, originally intended to dampen clothes before ironing, but never used by my mother, at hand to control excessive flare-ups.
Long before cake mix combinations and life hacks, my father added his own touches to bottled barbecue sauce. “Doctoring up,” he called it. The results were never the same twice – he randomly rummaged through the refrigerator and pantry – but they were always good. Charcoal smoke makes excellent cover.
I scoff at the ridiculous promotion of Memorial Day as “the official start of grilling season.” My father and I grilled year-round. I was as likely to be in gloves and a parka as in shorts and flip-flops when holding a platter for the grill’s offerings. Cold weather is still my favorite time to light the charcoal. Throw on a few extra coals and use the grill to keep warm. Who needs a fire pit?
The grill belonged completely to my father. My mother might carry out the tray of meat – always meat; it was the ’60s and ’70s, y’all – and head right back inside. From her, I inherited an aversion to sleeping in structures that don’t have running water, solid walls and DVRs.
Her absence meant that the time around the grill was my and my father’s alone. Charcoal works on its own time, and the wait for the coals to be ready was well spent. We talked about why lightning bugs flash, school classes, the difference between Democrats and Republicans and everything else in the world as he worked his way through a PBR and I finished a Coke.
If you’re in a hurry to eat, get one of those jet-engine gas grills that cooks 10 boneless chicken breasts in 15 minutes. Charcoal is about the journey. And fire. Don’t forget fire.
Debbie Moose is a freelance food writer and cookbook author. She can be reached at debbiemoose.com, Facebook or Twitter.