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Barbecue, everyone?

Rachael O. Phillips

It happens every summer. You and I are minding our own business, taking a neighborhood stroll to shed calories and avoid yard work, when an intoxicating fragrance tickles our nostrils and tantalizes our taste buds. Suddenly, we will trade our firstborn children for one perfect hamburger from the grill. Why? We smell identical aromas emanating from a thousand fast-food restaurants. Does a lighter fluid high barbecue our reason and send us home to fire up our grills?

This primeval urge originates in ages past, when primitive peoples cooked large animals in fire pits covered with leaves. According to infallible Internet sources, early French explorers encountered Caribbean villagers roasting whole pigs, which they described as cooked “from beard to tail,” or barbe á queue.

My first thought: maybe I should turn vegan. My second: how in blue blazes did they keep the fire burning days on end? I average four hours trying to start the charcoal, coaxing, praying and performing spectacular fire dances – which ignite nothing, but entertain my neighbors. Finally, I don a hazmat suit, soak the charcoal with five cans of lighter fluid, toss in a match and run.

This routine upsets my mother-in-law. So when she visits, I assign barbecue duty to her son, who hasn’t burned down the garage even once. But this concession does not help. One look, and she declares a state of emergency, convinced germ warfare presents no threat compared to that of our grill.

Mother misses the entire point of barbecuing – namely, to avoid washing pans. Besides, her worries are totally unfounded. So what if we haven’t cleaned the grill since Carter was president. A little extra flavor never hurt anyone. 

Think positive, Mother. At least, we’ve never cooked your hamburger in a hole in the ground.

Still, I might get into cleaning grills if we upgraded to one with more class, such as the Talos Outdoor Cooking Suite, which retails at a mere $35,000. Or a custom-built, 19-foot-long Texan grill that resembles Roy Rogers’ six-shooter. I had to take out a second mortgage the last time I bought steaks, so I probably won’t purchase a Cooking Suite in the near future. Sigh. I’ll stick with my faithful old kettle grill and hamburgers/hot dogs/chicken. Ditto, my mix-it-from-a-package marinades and dump-it-out-of-a-bottle barbecue sauce.

In this day of outdoor culinary experimentation, however, I appear the exception. Marinade and sauce recipes tout Coca Cola, Kentucky bourbon, cranberry juice, rice wine, oyster sauce or all of the above as ingredients. Some dishes require components that sound as if Dr. Seuss made them: hoison sauce, tahini and ketjap manis. I discovered “Weird Purple Chicken” – probably not on my next Mother-in-law Day menu. 

Outdoor chefs worldwide also love to experiment with meats. Some Australians mix Vegemite, a “concentrated yeast extract” into burgers. Are your taste buds beating a path to the nearest McDonald’s? But wait. Another Aussie also swears by Morton Bay bugs grilled with garlic herb butter, which, she says, “melt in your mouth.”

I don’t think Mother will visit Australia during grilling season. Or Morocco, where a French cook named Christian Falco roasts a whole camel on a spit over a huge wood fire. Apparently, a past barbecue attracted more than 500 hungry neighbors who paid him the equivalent of $20 apiece for sizzling slices of camel, which they swore tasted like chicken. And they weren’t even under the influence of lighter fluid.

Moroccans, like all barbecue lovers, are certainly entitled to their own preferences.

And I should display a little more sensitivity to my mother-in-law’s. After all, she has loved me like a daughter for 44 years, though she risks her life every time she opens my closets.

So I’ll clean the grill for the next family get-together.

Maybe the chicken will even taste like chicken.