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Articles & Essays

"Charcoaled to perfection: A family tradition"

Published 06/06/17
West Virginia South magazine (Beckley, WVa)
    We live today in a divided country, one that has been mired in a deep schism for a long, long time.
    Am I talking about politics? Heck, no. I’m referring to something a lot more important.
    Charcoal vs. gas.
    Across this great land, people are dragging their grills are from spiderweb-covered corners of sheds and releasing them from dusty covers on patios. Now, the rumbling begins.
    Each side makes arguments in favor of its preferred style: the smoky flavor of charcoal vs. the speed and temperature control of gas. And each side throws barbs: charcoal lovers are pyromaniac Neanderthal throwbacks; gas fans are sissies who refuse to get in touch with their primal inner grillers.
    By the way, no matter what you read in New York-published food magazines, the correct term is grilling not barbecuing. Grilling means flinging meat, fish or vegetables on a hot grate over a flame out in the yard. Barbecuing is what you do with pork, hickory wood, sauce and 6 to 10 hours of your time.
    I will make my stand here and now: I am a charcoal girl and have been since birth. Also,  I’m proud to be a charcoal griller’s daughter. (Hmm, might be a song there.)
    My father was raised in the foothills of the North Carolina mountains, went off to World War II and came back to the typical 1950s marriage - in other words, the man did not cook. I remember a time when my mother was sick in bed with the flu, and my father walked into the bedroom with a saucepan and a can of tomato soup. He asked her what to do with it. My mother told him, loudly, but it wasn’t a particularly useful answer in terms of getting my sister and me fed.
    He wouldn’t touch a fresh peach until one of us had peeled it. The fuzz creeped him out.
    Sometime in the 1970s, my mother sent him to the grocery store for bread. It must have been another emergency situation for him to be sent into such foreign territory, but I can’t remember what it was. He came back shocked and asked when the price of bread had gone up from 25 cents a loaf.
    But on weekends, my father was a grilling magician, creating good things to eat in a cloud of charcoal smoke. My mother stayed in the kitchen preparing everything else for the meal. She came out the back door to deliver meat-based items for cooking, then scooted back inside. The grill was my father’s alone.
    He started out as many people do, with a simple open bowl-shaped grill, good enough for the novice grilling of hot dogs and burgers. Before long, he graduated to a covered beauty with a tempered glass window in the lid - all the better to see the electric rotisserie inside turn racks of ribs or whole chickens. The fuel was always charcoal, which helped in keeping warm on January Saturdays. He was not one of those fair-weather grillers. There was no “official” start of grilling season for my father. By the time the Memorial Day get-your-grills-out advertising hoopla started each year, he’d been pulling steaks, marinated chicken quarters and baby-backs off his grill for months.
    Even when he did what he called “doctoring up” bottled barbecue sauces by adding random ingredients to them (somehow it worked), he didn’t look at what he was doing as cooking. It was cooking outside, which was very much not the same thing. Cooking out involved the manly art of fire, lawn chairs and beer.
    Charcoal grilling is not for people who yell “are we there yet?” on vacation trips. Let those folks go on and flip the switches on their gas grills, see if they can set speed records for cooking chicken breasts. Charcoal grilling is about the journey as much as the succulent, smoky destination.
    Due to my mother’s avoidance of the outdoors, my father and I had the yard to ourselves from the time he ignited the charcoal, using just enough lighter fluid to make brief but impressive flames, to when he pulled the meat of the day off the grill.
    Those were my favorite times with him, sitting in plastic-webbed aluminum chairs, sometimes in shorts and other times in coats and gloves. He with a PBR, me wtth a Coke. We talked about the birds in the yard, teachers I liked and hated, the differences between Democrats and Republicans, why mosquitos liked to munch on me. The briquets heat to gray-ashed perfection on their own time, not yours, and it was a time to talk and listen. Neither of us needed, or wanted, to be anywhere else.

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