Before I moved in with Q, my cooking repertoire consisted of boxed pastas with powdered packets and anything that could be completely prepared within the confines of my tiny microwave oven. After we moved in together, when it was my turn to cook, I defaulted to simple pasta dishes like we were planning to run a 10-K every week. When Q traveled abroad a couple of years ago, I reverted to my old grocery list – my first purchases after she left consisted of Hot Pockets, salsa con queso, and Inca Cola. I wish I could say those three items were meant for separate meals, but I don’t want to lie.
I suppose a lot of my boring cooking choices come from my hesitance to try a new recipe or technique and fail miserably. I only recently discovered my broiler could do more than store pans. Despite the history of great cooks in my family, I was too apathetic growing up, and now, I’m just reluctant to try new things.
Grilling has always been that activity at which even men who have no business inside a kitchen could excel. It seems that over the last half century, no matter how radically gender roles have changed, the suburban alpha male will always find his place behind a fiery grill. Though backyard burgers and hot dogs were a staple of every one of my summers, I’ve only ventured out once on my own.
I took Q to a secluded log cabin near the Shenandoah River in central Virginia early in our relationship to prove that I could be an outdoorsy type like her. Obviously, since I call it an “outdoorsy type,” you can see where this was headed. Though thankfully I was spared from the kayaking and hiking due to poor weather, we had decent enough weather to still attempt grilled chicken on the dilapidated grill next to our cabin. Despite purchasing all city slicker approved grilling supplies, my first attempt was a bit of a fiasco. The wind kept extinguishing the fire, the chicken was barely edible, and Q realized I may not have been the mountain man I had implied.
To rectify this, I visit my uncle Bryan, a presence behind the grill of countless summer barbecues, to begin my MANtorship. My hope was to grill a delicious manly meal for Uncle Bryan, my aunt Stefanie, and Q – hoping to make good on that previous disaster. Uncle Bryan and I decide on skirt steak (for which he’s already prepared a delicious teriyaki marinade), burgers, and grilled vegetables – a meal fit for a king, or at least a very manly man. Uncle Bryan suggests we use his charcoal grill instead of his gas grill, since “it’s more of an event.” I have to agree. The charcoal grill is more akin to cooking over an open campfire, the way I imagine cowboys of yesteryear went about preparing their dinner. Or at the very least their s’mores.
To start the fire, we use Uncle Bryan’s chimney starter – a cylindrical metal device that reminds me of a beer mug. He tells me to put about forty charcoal briquettes in the top of the chimney starter, place some crumpled up newspaper at the bottom, and light the paper with a stick lighter. This heats up the briquettes evenly and efficiently. Uncle Bryan tells me that this is his father’s chimney starter and I can tell it holds a special resonance for him.
After the briquettes are sufficiently lit, we dump the charcoal into the base of the grill and close the lid. Uncle Bryan shows me how the vents of the grill work, how closing both of them extinguishes the fire. We give the grill about twenty minutes to reach optimum temperature, heading back into the kitchen to prepare the veggies and meat.
After Uncle Bryan and I prepare the asparagus, zucchini, and red peppers by brushing them with canola oil and some of his favorite spices, I sneak back out onto the patio under the pretense of checking on the grill temperature. In actuality, I take a paper towel and wipe off the charcoal dust off the stick lighter, grill lid, and everything else I’ve touched. And as I sit there in the warm Virginia sun, I begin to realize that my anal retentiveness may be getting in the way of becoming a master griller. I’m not making a crème brûlée to exact specifications – I’m just cooking some red meat. Perhaps I need to adopt that mindset of going with the flow in order to really succeed at this challenge. I reenter the kitchen, intent on not letting my neuroses get in the way of a delicious meal.
Once we’ve completed the preparation, Uncle Bryan and I return to the grill, carrying the tray of food. To confirm that the grill is adequately hot, he counts the number of seconds he can comfortably hold his hand over the fire in order to determine the relative degrees. Around five seconds means about 200 degrees, whereas only being able to bear it for three seconds means the grill is ready for us. It reminds me of a trick my dad taught me to determine the temperature of a steak. The fleshy part between your thumb and forefinger will correspond to the texture of the steak. Making an A-OK symbol will make the fleshy part feel like medium rare steak, and moving the forefinger to the first knuckle of the thumb will make it feel closer to the tautness of medium cooked beef. It’s these little tricks that I learn but never use, instead relying on meat thermometers and Google searches to help me through my cooking crises. But as the central Virginia grilling trip proved, when I don’t have that safety net, it’s not a pretty sight.
The veggies mostly cook themselves, and the burgers are low maintenance. I have to use two hands on the stiff tongs to flip the steak, which reminds me that I haven’t lifted weights in months and perhaps it’s showing. I close the lid and start chatting with Uncle Bryan about some of the previous challenges I’ve completed. Just like smoking a pipe and drinking scotch before it, the supplemental activities around grilling – the sharing of stories, the beer drinking, the basking in the summer sun – seem to be of as much importance as the actual cooking. So often I’m too focused on completing challenges to enjoy them, but now that I have several of these under my belt, I’m remembering to savor the conversation and relaxation as much as the grilling itself.
When we return to the food, everything looks great, except it appears the steak needs a couple more minutes. When I ask Uncle Bryan if we need to flip the steak again, he informs me that the goal is to flip only once, in order to keep as much of the juice and marinade inside. It’s for that same reason, he says, to avoid using a fork on the steak. In any case, after a few more minutes in the grill, the steak appears to be around medium to medium rare, which is good enough for me and the rest of the crew. We remove the food from the grill, cut some slices into the now tender skirt steak, and set the table.
As the four of us consume this delectable dinner, I’m reminded that it didn’t take constant hovering over the grill or precise measurements to produce an immensely satisfying meal. I need to remember that controlling every little variable often means missing the big picture, and I think the output of this dinner as opposed to my former grilling experience is all the proof I need. There are few things in life more persuasive than good food, and the point is well taken. Not to mention delicious.
ON THE MAN SCALE…
This is one of those quintessential abilities that will always connote manliness in my eyes. No matter if it’s veggie burgers and zucchini, the man that grills is only a few steps removed from the caveman cooking a wooly mammoth over an open fire. Here’s to you, Ug. 3.70.
NEXT WEEK: I’m not leaving my carnivorous side just yet…