The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

July 12, 2012

Grilling out remains July Fourth tradition

By Adam Smith

— Nothing says Fourth of July like standing in the sweltering heat around an open flame and cooking the flesh of a deceased animal.

It’s actually a lot more delicious than it sounds.

Yes, millions of Americans will fire up the old barbecue grill this afternoon as part of a time-honored Fourth of July tradition. It’s a tradition that males in particular take very seriously. Women may believe they can bake like Betty Crocker, but grilling — that’s man’s work.

Now before ladies start kicking off their heels and hurling them in my direction, I’m not trying to be a chauvinist swine. But men do not take their grilling duties lightly.

I’m one of them.

I earned my love of grilling honestly from my father, who also takes his grilling very seriously. Whether it be hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, pork chops, ribs, steak or an entire Boston butt, the man is somewhat of a Picasso with charcoal.

And unlike Hank Hill of “King of Hill” fame, he cannot be bothered to cook with natural gas. A few years ago, we bought him a gas grill for Father’s Day. We pointed out the ease of operation and the fact he could cook without waiting for the coals to get just right.

To my knowledge, he has yet to use the gas grill.

I certainly understand his point of view, though I have recently been converted to the benefits of propane. However, there is something primal and more rewarding about building the perfect fire and cooking the perfect piece of meat on said fire.

I received my first gas grill last Christmas and burned through a tank of propane within the first three-to-four months. I generally use it once or twice a week because it’s quick and convenient. Turn on the gas, hit the button and voila! I’m ready to cook within a few short minutes.

Despite all the convenience of the gas grill, it’s really not the same. After years and years of eating meat loaded with carcinogens from lighter fluid and consumer charcoal, the food just doesn’t taste the same.

Cooking with gas also reduces the science of the whole process. Part of the magic of grilling with charcoal is it actually requires some semi-scientific logic. You’ve got to use the right amount of charcoal, the right kind of charcoal and you’ve got to know when the fire is just right.

If the fire’s too hot, you char the outside of the meat, while the inside stays raw. If the fire’s too cool, it could take 45 minutes to cook a simple hamburger.

For the advanced griller, there is the art of smoking a piece of meat. Smoking a piece of pork or chicken is actually my preferred way to cook, but it’s time consuming and the margin of error is far greater.

I used to host large July Fourth parties and would always smoke a Boston butt or pork shoulder or some other large, semi-fatty pork monstrosity. Doing it right, however, means a ton of preparation.

For maximum flavor, I would often brine the meat for as long as 24 hours in a mixture of pineapple juice and a variety of spices. On the day of the actual cook, I would rise with the chickens and begin the arduous task of building the perfect fire.

When smoking, fire is everything. Most smokers have temperature gauges that range from “cool” to “ideal” to let the user know when the temperature inside is just right.

My roommate and I would sit in the blazing Birmingham sun listening to old 1960s and 1970s soul records, drinking cans and cans of American beer and keeping an eye on the temperature gauge of the smoker.

We had to be on standby to add more charcoal or hickory chunks, depending on the temperature. If the temperature dips too low, hickory chunks blaze quicker to add heat. Once the fire reignites, you’ve got to add more charcoal to keep the momentum going.

We also had to “mop” the meat to keep it moist every 45 minutes to an hour.

There is much science in the process, and beer, charcoal and hickory are only parts of the equation; smoking takes maximum patience and more than a little luck.

After six-to-eight hours, depending on the weight of the meat, you should be able to pull a delicacy out of the smoker worthy of any barbecue restaurant. And once you’ve sliced it or pulled it, you can stand back and watch your guests devour it in the course of 15 to 20 minutes.

After spending that long preparing it, it doesn’t seem right to watch it disappear so quickly, but that’s how it often goes. To increase your chance of leftovers, invite only vegetarians or make sure lunch or dinner is prepared at untraditional times, i.e. 4 p.m. or 11 p.m.

Whether you use charcoal or propane today, be safe around your grill and cook something worthy of your family’s praise. They’ll thank you for it.