With the Fourth of July recently past, and Labor Day fast approaching, I felt that my thoughts on grilling are a suitable subject for discussion. All over the country people are inviting friends for cookouts and barbeques each weekend, a trend that will continue for the next few weeks, resulting in a mad rush for charcoal that will reach its zenith at the end of August. And really, I can sum up my feelings about grilled food in three words.
I loathe it.
Grilled food is always burnt, lacks imagination (or has too much), has an undeserved reputation for ease, and in general is no friend of mine. Magazines, cookbooks and bookstores do nothing but fan the flames (no pun intended) and keep America grilling, much to my dismay. (The Food Network probably also has something to do with the popularity of cookouts, but since I have no “live” TV at this time, I can’t prove it, so I won’t include them in my collective finger-pointing/eye rolling).
This starts every year, sometimes as early as Mother’s Day (depending on what part of the country you live in, and if the weather is nice enough by Mother’s Day to inflict charred meat on your family and friends). By early June, catalogs advertising grill tools as a perfect Father’s Day present are flooding the mailboxes, and fathers all over the country are torching spiders who were foolish enough to spin their webs in the grill boxes during the cooler months.
And each year about this time, I sigh and resign myself to the inevitable.
We have a few friends who love grilled food. They love to grill, and they love to have people over for “cookouts.” Any time we accept an invitation from them, we’re inevitably told “…and we just thought we’d get a bunch of stuff to put on the grill…”
Please don’t think I’m ungrateful. I enjoy my friends, and I’m always very enthusiastic about a meal that I don’t have to prep for, cook, or clean up after. But after the third or fourth go-round with hamburgers that are raw in the middle, vegetables that are charred beyond recognition and corn on the cob that looks like it was afflicted with some hideous strain of corn leprosy while growing in the field, I get a little impatient.
I’m sure that if Steve Raichlen or Bobby Flay cooked for me, I’d change my tune. But as yet, no invitation from either of these guys has hit my mailbox, so my opinion remains unchanged.
The menus at these events are always tiresomely repetitive. Steaks and chicken, or hamburgers and hot dogs serve as the main course. Potato or macaroni salad is the starch. The vegetable is often zucchini or corn, also cooked on the grill to an unrecognizable state of carbonization. Potato chips make an appearance at times, and baked beans (usually canned) have been known to be invited also. This menu gets a D- for Creativity.
Sometimes, however, in an effort to save their grade, people will try to jazz things up with an “unusual” grilled dessert. Grilled fruit with ice cream is most common, but sometimes one sees grilled fruit pizza, which I think is just disgusting. Burnt pastry plus undercooked fruit are not my idea of a swell ending to a meal.
I think, if pressed, these people would defend their choice as being “easy” or “not much trouble.” But I disagree. If you have hamburgers and hot dogs, you have to provide all the stuff that goes with them. This means buying buns, finding ketchup and mustard (and sometimes several different mustards, because kids tend to prefer yellow, but some grownups would rather have a more sophisticated Dijon or spicy flavor), mayonnaise—sometimes both low fat and regular, cheese (usually people provide Cheddar, American, and Swiss), lettuce that needs to be washed, tomatoes that need to be sliced, onions ditto, and some people additionally provide things like relishes, salsas, bacon, barbeque sauce and other choices to let people make a variety of burgers.
This, I think we can agree, does not constitute “not much trouble.” By the time they’ve bothered with all that lettuce washing, onion slicing, and condiment setting out, they could have made something different. And by different I don’t necessarily mean weird, or highly unique, or complicated. By different I mean something you haven’t served to people eight times in the last two months.
Steaks and chicken, while slightly less work in the go-with department, still mean trouble. What I find about this particular menu choice is that most people think they’ll serve this meal, and just let everyone “eat off their laps.” They provide chairs enough, but not tables enough, for each person. The result is guests trying to carve through a scorched and rubbery slab of cow with a tippy or flimsy plate balanced on their thighs, making every effort to keep their sawing from pushing baked bean sauce or potato salad off on their khaki shorts.
And the media just seems to fuel this nationwide obsession. The July or August issue of just about every cooking magazine I’ve ever gotten declares on its cover something like “Greatest grilling issue ever!” or “Over 20 great recipes for family cookouts” or “Try our fabulous grilling menu!” These magazines, I find, are generally the source for the grilled dessert ideas.
At the risk of sounding like a real grouch, I much prefer my food cooked on a stove. When cooking magazines boast that grilling is “primitive,” I can’t but agree. However, I don’t feel that primitive is a complimentary adjective when used to describe food. Meat that has begun to go rancid and is heavily spiced or salted could also be considered primitive, but I don’t think anyone would think of it as a positive addition to a festive menu. I firmly believe that if man was intended to cook over smoldering coals, the Viking range would never have been invented.