Maybe it’s because I’ve been binge-watching Mad Men, in anticipation of the grand finale, but lately I’ve been stuck in this retro mode of thinking about food, and noticing how certain fads and fixtures have quietly evolved, almost without my realizing it. I’m turning my attention here to the BBQ, which seems significant because it corresponds so eerily to landmarks of my own life.
Hey kids, who’s hungry?
BBQing was a celebratory occasion when I was young and a time of excitement; after all, dinner would be served outside, almost always made by Someone’s Dad and offered with predictable elements of choice: wieners, hamburgers, or how about just the bun? Our own bbq was a round, primary colour affair in the usual flying saucer shape and was ritually arranged with lozenges of charcoal and Someone’s Dad’s wide arc of lighter fluid in the air. I do recall some dads sporting a kind of blank-faced Ziggy Stardust look afterwards but bbqing was a dangerous job, and after all, eyebrows do grow back …
The Hibachi Grill
The hibachi (literally, the ‘fire bowl’) was a small sturdy bbq from Japan (think: the love child of a cast iron fry pan and a waffle iron) and during the seventies was many people’s coming-of-age barbecue. Portable, functional and at the time wildly impressive (“anyone for rumaki?”) the hibachi could easily be set up on, say, your first apartment’s flaking balcony, to impress a date. Of course, due to its diminutive size there could only ever be two steaks at a time (which only added to the romance). However, if you weren’t paying attention (let’s say the date went well, and the weather changed) the end result would be a rusted out, oily-brown tank. (Not unlike those cast iron frying pans that everyone intends to re-season at the cottage). The obvious solution? Buy another one.
Hey Baby Check THIS out!
My experience with a gas BBQ seemed to coincide with the onset of the Food Channel and there was a huge learning curve involved. This was not your parents’ BBQ; there was no three-hour build-up waiting for coals to whiten, and there was more than hamburgers being flung onto the flames. Chefs like Bobby Flay and Rob Rainford taught us about cooking fish, ribs, lamb and even (gasp!) vegetables on the (new word alert) ‘grill’. Marinades were applied with a spear of rosemary, while shrimp snuggled together on skewers and spiced potatoes were bundled into a fragrant twist of foil. Interestingly, all this new background prep seemed to be relegated to me, along with bringing the food outside (preferably with a drink for the cook) to present it to The Man for its final glory on The Grill. I didn’t mind this and the grill marks, perfect and distinct, remained a mystery to me.
Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained
Years later when I became Suddenly Single, bereft and the reluctant owner of a Vermont Castings BBQ, I found my interest in grilling was less than zero. The concept intimidated me and it was yet another thing that I couldn’t face learning. Enter a most excellent and assertive friend – who could barbeque.
She showed me how the propane connected, taught me not to flinch at the subsequent whoosh of flame, and told me to keep the lid open during the process. “We have GOT this!” she laughed and went on to share every BBQ secret she knew, from cooking bacon outside to producing grill marks on salmon. Soon, I was bold, flipping steaks for drop-in dinners, grilling peaches and prepping souvlaki. And you know what? I loved it and never looked back in anger or otherwise.
Sue Sutherland-Wood is an award-winning freelance writer who lives and works in Old South London. She is also a regular contributor to eatdrink.