I lived in a fifth-floor New York City walk-up apartment with no yard when I started getting the itch to put food to flame. I was drawn to it like a moth, for reasons I couldn’t quite grasp, and which now smolder at the core of my food-loving soul.
Whenever my friend Ali was out of town, I’d let myself onto her back deck to fire up her kettle grill after watering her plants. Since I took pains to replace the charcoal and scrub the grate as cleanly as I could manage, she was kind enough to issue me a key.
My parents, sister and I hauled skillet-grayed burgers and broiler-blistered hot dogs out to the sunless cement patio on holidays. Once my parents finally caved in to suburbanity and picked up a grill, I was already deep into sullen teenhood (and anything that involved fresh air and sunlight). I recall my father - a brilliant scientist and adventurous cook - attempting to flame-cook a batch of frozen french fries in a perforated foil pouch. It was...a noble attempt.
My mother’s twin sister - the only family member in possession of a grill - was afraid of the darn thing. She’d force a spatula and tongs into the hands of any visitor with a Y-chromosome; my sister and I sometimes had to explain to a visiting boyfriend that, no, this wasn’t some odd Sicilian test of virility he had to pass to stay in the family’s favor. (A drag queen friend of mine tamed those flames in heels, pearls, an apron, and a blaze of authority.)
I hit a seven-year vegetarian jag when I turned 19, and throughout college and grad school, would show up to cookouts clutching sad little packets of cut-up vegetable chunks, seasoned with salt and pepper and a thin slather of whatever oil was cheapest at the Super Fresh that month. I’d hand the packet to whomever was manning the grate and wait to be handed back a pouch of steamed glop that I’d eat with as much gusto as a starving, self-serious art student could muster.
The masters degree I was fueling myself through, by the way, was in metalsmithing. I am neither thrilled nor cowed by an open flame - if anything, it just feels as comforting as cool air to me. I’d just never been privy to the alchemy that occurs when fire kisses meat and chars the edge of vegetables and summons the most bewitching flavors known to mortal man. Cooking (especially in the big, mostly yard-free city where I moved after graduation) was for the stove and, sadly, the microwave. It was most definitely an indoor sport - and so far as I'd ever seen, only dudes could play in the outdoor leagues.
It was a piece of fruit –and a little bit of kind instruction - that finally compelled me to try it for myself. Two friends of mine settled into a ground-level apartment with a yard, perfect for entertaining.
One night after dinner, I watched as one of our hosts, Pete, pulled out what looked like a section of air duct with a handle bolted to the side. He carefully lined the bottom with newspaper, filled the top with chunks of black wood and set the whole mess ablaze from below.
But at the peak of the inferno, he didn’t dump the whole shebang into the Weber kettle in an effort to bring hellfire to innocent foodstuffs. He waited patiently for the fire to wane into an orange, ash-coated glow, tipped it into the grill with a little spark and not much fanfare, and placed peach halves face down on the oiled grate above them.
Until that point, I’d only ever witnessed well-meaning, weekend warriors flicking switches to summon gas flames, or dousing noxious lighter fluid over pillow-shaped briquettes. This was artful - and entailed the use of tools to boot - and the results were inarguable. After he pulled the softened, hash-marked peach halves off the grate, he scooped vanilla ice cream into each and ground a few flecks of black pepper on top.
Dessert was served with minor fanfare, knee-buckling flavor, and not even a hint of the acrid flavor I’d always associated with grilled food. I needed more of this in my life.
From then on, Pete was generous enough to indulge my rookie questions and with access to Ali’s grill, I worked my way from fruit to vegetables to fish to chicken parts to whole animal heads. I flamed through my fair share of flare-ups, overdone food and minor injuries, but somehow along the way, it became my go-to method of cooking and I was reborn as something of a grilling evangelist.
These days I’m rarely happier than when I’m spending hours slow-smoking a brisket, feeding the results to friends and neighbors, and empowering other people to adopt outdoor cooking as part of their arsenal. My first job in food writing was as Grilling editor for AOL’s food section, and that’s sparked a career in which I get to write about mastering brisket and ribs, triage grilling ills, and celebrate the bounty of the season with vegetables that people might not think of laying on a grate.
I regret the two and a half decades I spent thinking that somehow grilling was off-limits to me, for reasons of gender, locale, dietary restrictions or budget. I suppose that's what upset me about that dude-centric article: the notion that any cooking method would be the domain of any particular group, and that some young woman might read it and assume that her father, brother, uncle, boyfriend, guy pal or any random fellow might somehow be better equipped for the task.
So far as I'm concerned, the more hands on spatulas, the more tasty grilled food there will be for all of us to eat. Can't we all just grill along?
The Southern Foodways Alliance was kind enough to share a few of their favorite women who aren't afraid to play with fire:
Helen Turner of Helens' Bar-B-Q - Brownsville, Tennessee
Achieve Grilling Greatness
The Art of Outdoor Dining
Read all about barbecue
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