Today the skies above many of our town centres are filled with low level smog. Even though areas are legally protected as smokeless zones the night sky is always orange with the street light reflected from our own muck. Sunny afternoons in a town garden are rare enough without pollution lessening their number. The few good days we do have now can no longer be enjoyed to the full, just like in the 50s when there was a constant danger of suffocation. On top of that,what little sunlight as does get through has a self regulating effect. As the sun shines on our commons and gardens, clouds of smoke all to often rise up and blot it out again as people try to enjoy their vain attempts at barbecuing. The first hint of a gap in the summer cloud cover draws out into the open the town trogolodite. Through years of little exposure they find themselves at a total loss when it comes to appreciating nature. For most of them, the simple pleasures of eating in the sun have become so parodied by the TV and magazine health pundits that the simplicity has almost totally vanished. At a barbecue these days a meal is more frequently made of the event rather than of the food. Let me try to put the record straight and help you avoid some of the nastier pitfalls that the uninitiated may find.
Picture the scene if you will. A normal summers day in suburbia. Rather than have an ordinary dinner party you have decided to avoid all the trouble of fancy food and go for good traditional fair. Food taken in the raw, which it will have to be if the fire wont light. The cloud gap might just be long enough for the barbecue if youre quick. With the guests expected and the sky still blue your first task will be to find the Barbecue itself, probably its in the shed under the kids old bikes. Once found, looking a bit ramshackled, tired and rusted you will remember that it had more bits last time it came out. Anyway the remaining legs will be loose, so you will have to make do with several of the ubiquitous garden bricks and the few parts that are left.
There is always the option of buying a new one. The summer is the season when supermarkets have imported hundreds of barbecues. Even after years of complaints they still stack them right up to the roof. If you are under seven foot tall you will have to hope that one of the piles will have fallen down when a previous customer tried to get a box out from the middle. After a bit of a rummage you may be able to find one that doesnt look to badly damaged by the fall, so you take it. Already they will be on special offer so you can afford to get some charcoal while youre at it as well. The stuff left in the shed from last year is a bit damp. (Half an inch of water inside the opened plastic bag bodes ill for when you get round to lighting it. You wont throw the lot away as you hope to use it as a top-up once the heat is high enough to drive the water out.)
The equipment always comes as a kit, packaged in a little cardboard box. It will take ages to get all the parts to fit so youll have to start in plenty of time. Eventually, with the grill plates sloping up rather than down, the legs pointing out rather than in and the air vents totally open there might be a good chance the thing will light. But how will you do it? You put in a lot of effort with a borrowed cigarette lighter and the dry twigs found in the border from last years shrubs. Initially your hopes are high but once the tinder is exhausted and you are tired of blowing ash everywhere the vestigial glow from the barely warm coals shows a complete lack of any inclination to burst into flames. In fact you have only just managed to discolour the edges of a few of the brickettes.
If you are trying to live a green, vaguely veggie life-style, you wont have a car. Therefore you cant dowse the whole thing in petrol. As you have an ornamental but operational coal hearth fire you do have some firelighters which may help, as they will start anything burning. The problem is a firelighter doesnt know when to stop. It can still be going when your barbecue guests have started on the washing up. In desperation you could surreptitiously try other alternatives such as meths, paint brush cleaner or anything that says danger inflammable but what ever you use, bear in mind that each lighting fluid will lend its own subtle brand of flavour to the flames. Any food left to dangle in the exhaust gasses of such an artificially ignited blaze will have to be made of strong stuff to keep its own taste noticeable. Rejecting these techniques as being either un-green or too dangerous you opt for a gas canister blow torch. Although this rapidly makes the metal too hot to adjust without injury it has very little effect on the black stuff in the bag from the supermarket that claims to be fuel.
By then the guests had arrived and the pre-prepared food is attracting flies from the next county. The crouching position has become quite painful and you are irritated by dampened knees and all to no effect. Straightening up, you look around for something to use as a fan. The first attempt is with a flattened cardboard box, it proves to be a poor choice as it bends far too easily, as you fan it flaps ineffectually. All the metal trays are covered with raw food so the only thing that wouldnt bend and will fan is the barbecue cook book. Closed, the large format glossy covered, easy clean hardback book is difficult to hold. It slips easily through the fingers and hits the barbecue, knocking the coals out onto the traditionally wet grass. Even though the coals were not even close to being hot enough to cook they burn patches of lawn so badly that the scars didnt heal for years. You put the cooled coals back in the trough with the cooking tongs and try again, this time with the book open. Once more you stoop low over the unpromising pile of sulking unimflammables and holding one half of the book firmly in both hands you swing it. The half book left to flap closes so fast on the down stroke that the pages thumped shut on your fingers in a remarkably painful way. You are left with a cold fire, several bits of the book and a bad back. Only then do you remember the bit of hardboard that has been kept in the shed for years in the hope it will be useful one day. That day has come at last. Hardboard is rough enough to hold, strong enough not to bend and light enough to swing windily, but even with a fan perfectly capable of withstanding the frantic swayings it takes you forty minutes before the coals resemble the ones on the front of the newly grass-and-mud-caked barbecue cook book.
The choice of possibly edible source material for the blackened offerings you hope to call food varies widely. You can try being green and go veggie or opt for the meat route. Either way you will have to keep yourself going with the promise that nothing tastes better than when its cooked in the open.
For the veggie, a non spitting fat free spit has the advantage that the proto-food will not coat passers by in gobbets of boiling oil. If you consider that to be part of the fun you can try coating peppers with edible candle wax which melts and drips onto the coals in a most satisfactory way. Unfortunately the end result - if flavour rather than effect is what you are after - is often badly compromised.
As you are a dedicated meat eater you have to consider the danger of food self igniting. At last the food is brought out ceremoniously, to the obviously relief of the guests. In a panic you realised there is no cooking plan. Your partner has taken care of all the other preparations but you dont even know what the food is let alone how long or in what order to cook it. The hungry crowd is watching, you have to do something, so on an impulse you cover the grill with as much food as it will take.
Almost at once the food catches light as vast quantities of flame enhancing fat fall from the meat onto the coals and flare up in a most impressive and entertaining way. Choking clouds of smoke blow next door making the neighbours think the sudden darkness means that rain is coming. They rush out to quickly bring in their washing and start coughing madly. It is only when they lean over the dividing wall that they discover you are not trying to burn down your shed. The best way to stop them calling the firebrigade is to invite them round.
The smoke makes it impossible to see just how burnt the food has become. Even if a helpful billow lets you catch a glimpse of the griddle the tantalising gap in these clouds is seldom large enough to let you in to cook. As the conflagration begins to change the local microclimate, parts of the cook start to complain bitterly by blinking, coughing or running away. If immediate action is required to offset the need for swiftly made sandwiches the only recourse is a damp towel over the face or a hasty blast from an extinguisher. What effects millions of these barbecues have on larger scale weather conditions I hate to think. All the CO2 extinguishers unleashed in just one moderate summer in this country alone must account for half a degree air temperature rise by themselves. In L.A., Americas barbecue capital, the smoke from millions of gardens helps makes it so unhealthy to breath the air that a pollution alert has to be issued on one day in two. So, chose a low fat food for all round benefits.
In either case the smell of the barbecuing goodies may well promise more than the taste can ever provide. Excited by the prospect and irritated by the time it is all taking, an audience of guests will become restless if not downright peevish. One of them is bound to suggest adding extra flavour by sprinkling the contents of a packet of aromatic wood shavings on to the now healthy flames. This will give the air a wonderful scent but almost none of this essence is ever detectable once the food is declared ready.
Salmonella really is a problem, even though the government say so. Perhaps the reading of an as yet unpublished booklet from HMSO would help you keep a few friends. Amongst other things it gives sound advice on cooking eggs on a spit. Although they admit it is difficult to pass a skewer through the shell in the recommended manner, unless this is done the heat will be dissipated in such a way that the albumen will not cook thoroughly or evenly. On a happier note, a diagram shows how best a skewer can be run down the length of a corn cob. The legend reads: Place the vegetable between the jaws of a carpenters vice. Take an electric drill (non hammer type) with a bit that is one inch longer than the cob. With the food thus firmly held it is a simple task to drill a longitudinal pilot hole. Remove it from the vice and insert a skewer one size wider than the drillbit. This tightness takes into account any food expansion due to heating and thereby prevents slippage or Cob Spin when you come to eat it.
Whether or not you take that advice is up to you but should you and your party survive the event, cleaning the beast afterwards is even more of a pain than getting it to light in the first place. Far too often the ashes are left in the crucible until the next day - out in the open. And what is it that ends most barbecues? Rain. This turns the ash into a concretion that a chisel wont easily shift. Leaving lumps of grey clag on the once beautiful stove black metal quickly render the whole thing brown in a week - a period that passes all too easily when the device can be seen from the kitchen window, rusting away in the drizzle dampened grass with every passing moment.
Once I managed to hold a decent barbecue in the rain. Our french windows opened on to a patch of concrete that we called a patio. The overhang of the door and the rain shadow of the house kept the fire dry enough to light and a through draft from the open front door kept the smoke blowing out into the slowly darkening garden. Once the food had finished burning and the blackness had been scraped off, the glorious moment of eating the food was rather ruined when the wind changed direction. The room filled with smoke as fast as the fire brigade videos show them doing when a foam chair catches light. Its all very well closing the doors, even if they will close with the barbecue in the way, but the smoke then cant get out. We had to run past the thing into the garden holding our breaths before we could inhale again. This is a dangerous game with eyes closed against the sudden irritant properties of the aromatic wood shavings.
Going to a barbecue held by someone else is not the total answer either. It can drive a sane person mad watching the ineffectual ditherings of an inexperienced cook having the same hell that you lived though in your own garden. I find it almost impossible not to help. The resulting arguments often slow matters even more. But, all in all, tending to a barbecue is by far a better bet than eating anything prepared in one. Actually doing the cooking is the only way I have ever found to avoid eating any of it yourself. I just say I am too busy to eat. Also, after all that hard work it isnt fair for you to help do the washing up.
And now, a link to my last employer's site:
Electronic Control Services. - which I still maintain.