Battle of the Briquettes




The minute the temperature climbs above 60 degrees, the smell of charcoal-broiled food wafts through my neighborhood. I’m pretty sure that my husband and I are the only two people on our street who don’t own a grill, or even a hibachi. I have to admit that it’s all my fault, mainly because I don’t trust myself around anything that can self-combust and force me to use the “stop, drop and roll!” technique I learned back in school. Every time I think about our friend, Henry, who squirted lighter fluid onto red-hot coals and ended up having to wear a toupee for the next three months, I whip out the electric frying pan. It’s not as if I haven’t tried my hand at barbecuing. One of our neighbors once gave us his old grill, complete with a big sack of charcoal, when he purchased his new Deluxe Turbo-Flame gas-on-gas grill with a heavy-duty rotisserie big enough to roast an entire cow. A few nights after we received the grill, I decided to surprise my husband by cooking up a batch of juicy cheeseburgers. He’d always said that burgers cooked outdoors on a charcoal grill were the best on Earth, so I knew he would be thrilled when I handed him a plate of burgers with telltale grill marks on them. Getting the charcoal to light, however, was another story. I tried everything short of a flame-thrower to get the briquettes started, but they refused to catch. Two hundred matches later, when one briquette finally did light, I blew on it until my cheeks hurt and I felt lightheaded … and still the flame died. I grew so frustrated, I took all of the charcoal out of the grill, lined the bottom with crumpled newspaper and stacked the charcoal back on top of it. Then I set the newspaper on fire. I also threw some dead maple leaves on top of the whole thing. I figured that maple tasted good on pancakes, so it might add a little zip to the burgers. I’d never cooked on a grill before so the burgers turned out just a tad on the well-done side. Actually, they resembled hollowed-out lumps of coal topped with overcooked, brown rubbery cheese. Not wanting to hurt my feelings, my husband choked them down. “Well, how were they?” I asked after he’d finished. “They had a really … unique flavor,” he said, then added under his breath, “A flavor that I’m sure will linger with me for the next few days.” After that night, I refused to use the grill again. In fact, I left it standing outside untouched for so long, the next time I lifted the lid on it, I found a big wasps’ nest inside. That did it. The grill mysteriously disappeared the next day. To be honest, there actually is a plus side to not owning a grill. When we go to other people’s barbecues and stuff ourselves with their food, they don’t expect us to reciprocate with a barbecue at our place. But even if we did own a grill, I’m pretty sure no one would show up to eat our burgers anyway; not unless they wanted to risk developing an intestinal blockage. Still, a few of the barbecues we’ve been to over the years haven’t exactly been gourmet fare. My husband once was handed a hot dog that had been burned so badly, it resembled a long cigar ash in a bun. And at another barbecue, I cut into a chicken breast that was so raw in the middle, I swear I heard it cluck. Alas, no food ever was quite as bad or made my husband suffer as much as my maple-leaf burgers. Perhaps it’s because when I grabbed the handful of leaves to toss on top of the charcoal, I might — just might have — accidentally grabbed some poison-ivy leaves, too. NH Sally Breslin’s humor columns appear in several newspapers and on www.NH.com.

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