A Girl and Her Grill

I read an interview with Chris Schlesinger, the owner of East Coast Grill in Boston. He has an infectious enthusiasm for cooking with fire, so I bought his two books (co-written with John Willoughby) called, “License to Grill,” and “The Thrill of the Grill.” I liked what I read. He writes about the long tradition of fire-based cooking, the chemical reasons grilled food tastes so good, and the health benefits. But he forgot the most important thing about grilling–I really like to play with fire. I was convinced.

Let me say, in retrospect, Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend may not be the best time to go shopping for a grill. Barbecues Galore on Pico was packed, you couldn’t even get in the parking lot, but the staff there was friendly and very helpful. They asked me what I wanted and suggested a nice gas grill–just hit the switch and it’s ready to go, plus the grill level is adjustable. But I agreed with Mr. Schlesinger, that the relative convenience just didn’t outweigh the joy of cooking with real fire from real wood. Plus his theory that you could create different heat levels around the grill area by moving the charcoal around made a lot of sense to me. I’m a California gal, grilling is practically my destiny. I turned up my nose at those oh-so-easy, any-fool-can-use-’em appliances.. Not for me. I picked out the biggest, fire-engine-red Weber they had. And all the accessories. And a bunch of charcoal.

I had prepared a whole trout with a cornbread-shrimp stuffing, corn on the cob, and asparagus. Chris insisted I blanch the asparagus and corn (to retain their bright color) by dunking them in boiling water, then cold water. Though I was unsure why I was blanching white corn–what color could it possibly fade to? This is the kind of thing that Esteemed East Coast Cooks don’t bother to tell you. Nor do they bother to tell you you can throw it in the microwave for 1 1/2 minutes and get EXACTLY the same effect.

Now, my man Chris favors hardwood charcoal, not briquettes. Those cute little pillowy shapes normal briquettes come in are made by mixing sawdust with various toxic stuff. Which should burn off long before the food gets there, but you never know. No, grillmasters like me and the Chris-ster buy the real thing, which is basically chunks o’ wood that have been charred. Now, maybe Chris is used to some kind of refined little New England hardwood. Out here in the Wild West, though, the chunks o’ wood are just that–some of them as big as 8″ or 10″ long. That flimsy little chimney starter thing he recommended? (A metal tube with a grate a few inches just above the bottom–newspaper goes below the grate, charcoal above, you light the paper.) Not much use with wood too big to fit in it. I went back to the store and got little cheater lighter cubes and stacked the charcoal over them.

Chef Chris, is, I’m sure, a wonderful person and kind to animals, but he really could have mentioned the sparks. Unlike briquettes, hardwood charcoal sparks a LOT. And snaps. And generally sounds like a brush fire. I live at the edge of the Santa Monica Mountains during a very dry season. We don’t like sparks up here. Chris is very encouraging to us novice grillers. He says don’t worry too much about getting the fire started. According to him, as long as one corner of one piece is going, you can get the rest lit. Two words for you, Grill Boy: Nuh. Uh. You can get the fire lit IF you take it all apart, put in more little lighter cubes, stack it all up again, move the pieces around to get them all lit, put more cubes in, move around again, all the while batting down sparks and getting a lovely mesquite-smoked aroma in your hair and clothes. By, the way, you would think Mr. Famous Cookbook Writer would think to remind us to open the vents on the grill. I guess he was too busy blanching something.
Far be it from me to remind a Certain Someone that, back when Paul Revere was wearing knickers at the Bahston Tea Pahty, real people in the West were cooking real food over real mesquite fires. Okay, not me personally, but I’m sure someone was. Chris suggests keeping a glass of your favorite beverage by the grill while you’re working. I suggest a pitcher.

Anyway, I had carefully timed the meal based on Chris’ books. He recommends you judge the heat of the fire by how long you can hold your hand 5″ above the grill. This sounds more like something G. Gordon Liddy or a Marine recruit would do on a bet than something a person who just got a manicure should be doing. Isn’t fingernail polish highly flammable? But I was pretty sure I had all the food in the right place. The fish cooked up nicely, moist and tender. The asparagus was the most fun because I got to roll it back and forth. It was a little hard to tell about the corn, which didn’t look cooked exactly–it looked about the same as when I started. Must be all that blanching. I moved it onto a hotter spot, moved the fish back, twirled the asparagus. I was GRILLIN’!

Okay, so it took an hour and a half just to get the fire ready (remember that “instant-on” gas grill I could have bought?). The dogs were very excited about the concept of food outdoors. I’m sure the smoke will wash out of my hair in a week or two. The fish and the asparagus were excellent. And, Mr. Boston Fancypants Cook, we in California, the HOME of the backyard patio barbecue, we LIKE our corn practically raw. We do.

Copyright 1997 by Janine Smith. Not to be reproduced or distributed without permission