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Happy Father's Day Dad!

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This year my nephew's graduation party has taken precedence over Father's Day. Normally on Father's Day I make my dad a meal on the grill of his choosing, and the pictures often appeared here on the site. This year where I won't have pictures of the Father's Day meal, I thought I might do a blog where I reminisce about my memories of me and my dad as it relates to grilling. Now it may be of zero interest to anybody but me, and possibly other members of my immediate family. But there's always a chance that some others will get a kick out of memories of the "bad" old days of grilling. The days where lighter fluid was king and the brazier style charcoal grill was a household staple.

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This is a modern version of what every grill looked like up until I hit High School. Weber kettles and gas grills hadn’t really caught on around here until then. You said grill and this is what everyone thought of.

Some of my earliest summer memories are being outside with my father while he was lighting the grill and cooking something on it. I think the attraction was the whole idea of playing with fire, something little kids can't get enough of. I mean I wasn't a Pyro or anything, but I did enjoy watching a fire. And in the early days with lighter fluid and charcoal, you got certainly some big fires. My dad was a very patient man as was often evidenced by his efforts on the charcoal grill. When I say charcoal grill, there was literally about one and only one kind of charcoal grill. You might see the occasional hibachi, but other than that it was the same style grill. No Weber kettles, no big and shiny gas grills and certainly no smokers. The grill, was called a brazier style grill and everyone had one. It basically looked rather like a 2 foot (60 cm) diameter hockey puck. The grill body was about 3 or 4 inches (8-10 cm) high and had an open cylinder rising in the middle which received a shaft that came off the bottom of the metal grill grate. There was a mechanism for setting the grate in a higher or lower position to control the heat. There were typically three flimsy legs that attached to the bottom of the grill and sloped towards each other and met and crossed in the middle of their total length or about 1 foot (30 cm) off the ground. If you had a deluxe model grill, two of these legs would have wheels. The bottom of the main grill body sloped slightly downward towards the middle but it was a barely noticeable slope.

There was no top lid to this kind of grill, you were always grilling your food open to the air. One of the big complaints about the brazier style grill, was it was very easy to stir up the ashes and end up with ash all over your food. Dealing with that was just part of the normal day to do day adventures of grilling. Since the grill had no lid, indirect grilling was unheard of. There were rotisserie attachments for this type of grill. Picture about an 18 inch (46 cm) high cylinder with a top that had been cut in half, and then the front half of the cylinder was removed. This assembly would be put on top of the grill and the rotisserie rod passed through the curved sides of the cylinder. Once again the front half of this assembly was open, so when you were rotisserie grilling you were grilling in the open air once again. Around this neck of the woods this was a grill. About the only type of grill that you would see other than that, was found at public sites such as parks or picnic grounds. This grill for public use was a rectangular box about 2 feet wide (60 cm), 1 foot (30cm) deep and 8 inches (20 cm) high. The front face and the top were open and typically there was a metal grill grate set down about 1 inch (2.5 cm) from the top. This assembly was mounted to the ground on a 2” or 3” (5 or 7.5 cm) diameter steel pole.

Thinking back about how there was only one type of grill, it also reminded me there was pretty much one type of food appropriate for each day in the week. I’m not sure if that was a New England thing or what. Things were pretty regimented. Mondays were leftovers night. Tuesday's were some form of chicken. Wednesdays were Prince spaghetti night, this was a local company (Prince Spaghetti) that used that phrase as an advertising slogan and it must have worked because Wednesdays were spaghetti. Thursdays were meatloaf night or stew night, using any remaining leftovers from earlier in the week. Friday's were fish. Saturdays were hamburgers for lunch and at supper time it was hot dogs and beans in the early days, and later on steak and beans for supper. Sundays were the day you had a roast. Often it would be a New England boiled dinner where corn beef or beef pot roast was braised in a pan with vegetables. Then on Monday nights you would end up having corned beef hash as your leftovers. And the whole weekly cycle began again. This wasn't just my parents, it seemed to be everyone's parents. I wonder if this wasn't some byproduct from growing up during the Great Depression. Grilling often stuck to those same "rules". You’d have the same food items on the same day the week, except they,d be cooked on the grill. All except for the spaghetti and stew of course.

Like the food and the grills, "Grilling Season" extended from Memorial Day to Labor Day. You didn't grill before or after those days. I don't know who made those rules for grilling season, but for most folks they're still in effect today. In some ways, I used to feel sorry for my dad when grilling season arrived. Remember this was in the pre-charcoal chimney days and lighter fluid reigned supreme. One of the things about lighting charcoal with lighter fluid, is it's a long and involved process. It wouldn't always work the first time so you never quite knew when you were eating. My dad would get out of work at 5:00 PM, and it would take about a half hour to drive home and he'd walk in the door in about 5:30. My mother would often have the items that were going to be grilled prepared and sitting on a tray in the refrigerator waiting for him to use them. My dad would change out of his shirt, tie and dress pants and then head out to the grill to attempt to light it.

Now that I have set the scene, I'm going to list some of my various memories of grilling with my dad:

  • Lighter fluid and the ritual of lighting the grill form some of my earliest memories of the summer. One of the ways I would know it was time to come home for supper was if I smelled burning lighter fluid coming from my backyard. I was often playing with my friends only one or two houses away and you could always smell it whenever someone lit a grill.
  • If I was home, I would always go out with my dad to light the grill. This was the BIG show. My dad would pour out some charcoal and mix in some wadded up newspaper and then coat the charcoal with lighter fluid. He’d stand back and a safe distance and throw in some lighted matches.
  • Hopefully the charcoal would actually light. Sometimes the charcoal would be damp for one reason or another and it would be a bear to light. But if things went well, you'd initially get this big blue flame a couple feet tall that would gradually burn down. Then you'd cross your fingers and hope that the coals actually stayed lit. Sometimes two or three relighting's would be required. You just never knew when you'd actually be eating when you were grilling outside.
  • Watching my dad light a charcoal grill was one of the times I realized he was a very patient man. It was not until I started working myself, that I realized just how much patience he showed. He had just worked a very stressful eight hour day, followed by a 30 minute, 10 mile (16 km) commute on secondary roads with very heavy traffic only to get home and be faced with trying to light a charcoal grill without a charcoal chimney.
  • One of the other variables of lighting charcoal this way that you had to make sure to leave enough time for your lighter fluid to burn off. This all depended on how many relighting's were required and how much lighter fluid was used. This time range varied widely. My dad I would spend this time sitting out by the grill talking, about what I don't remember, but I do remember enjoying the time spent.
  • Another way I now realize my dad was a patient man was how he would let me “help” him get the grill ready for lighting. This despite the fact I’m now guessing my “helping” took him 3 times longer than if he did it himself.
  • Once the food went on the shallow brazier style grill, you'd hope that the wind didn't pick up. It was very easy to stir the ash up and you'd end up having additional seasoning on your food.
  • These days you have a ton of grilling accessories. I remember everyone having the same basic grill tools: A set of tongs, a spatula and a barbecue fork with long tines. these days using a barbecue fork is frowned on because it lets the juices out of the meat. Back in those days that is how you flipped your steak and moved it on and off the grill. You also pressed down your hamburger to help sear it once it was on the grill. That is just how it was done. These days that is said to squeeze the juices out of the meat and is a bad idea.
  • Unlike today, I don't remember the grills ever being set up for multi-zone fires. One of the problems was the grills were so shallow you really didn't have much variation in depth to work with. You were working with a maximum depth of only 3 or 4 coals, so not much variation in depth at all. What this meant is sometimes the food would come out rather charred. If you got flareups, sure he could move the food around but since the charcoal was spread out across the grill, the flareups would follow you no matter where you went. You didn't have a safe zone with no charcoal where you can pull the food over to kill flareups.
  • I do remember the charcoal being moved to one area of the grill when you used the rotisserie attachment. You would place the charcoal in the rear half of the grill under the rotisserie housing. But this wasn't a great set up either. Since the rotisserie housing was only covering the back half of the grill, you were basically direct grilling. In those days I never remember anyone using any kind of a drip pan to keep the grease from dripping into the hot coals. It was certainly a dilemma because you had to place the coals under the food you wanted to be cooked. If you placed the coals away from the food at the front of the grill most of the heat would be lost to the open air.
  • When my dad first bought a rotisserie attachment for the grill I remember the first cook being a total disaster. He tried to make a rotisserie chicken but it just about literally went up in flames. The hot fat from the rotating chicken would drip onto the hot coals. This would cause a massive flareup which would cause more fat to drip which would sustain the flareups. I can remember him having a squirt bottle of water out there and initially he would have to stand up and squirt the flames once in a while. Soon it seem like he was constantly standing there squirting out the flareups. Although I could see he was impatient, he never lost his temper. At the point where his squirt bottle was almost out of water, hee decided to throw in the towel and try and finish the chicken in the oven. It was pretty bad the outside of the chicken was blackened, and the inside was barely cooked. I don't think we ever ate that chicken.
  • I don't ever remember rotisserie chicken being cooked again. I do remember him doing some beef roast on the rotisserie and although the set up was the same the results were little bit better. There were some flareups but they want massive. Frankly the years have obscured my memory and I'm not sure why that was.
  • When I moved back home from college, I began cooking rotisserie roasts myself. A grilling cookbook I bought, described the use of a disposable foil drip pan. It was a big revelation to both of us that you could use a drip pan under the roast to keep the fat from flaring up.
  • This next item is grilling related and my dad and I were the victims. For 2 or 3 weeks in July we used to stay at cottages up at Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire. We had changed to a new facility in 1969. The owners of this place would have a meet and greet cookout every Monday night. There were grilled hotdogs and hamburgers and it provided an opportunity for the new incoming guests to get to know the other people staying there that week. Our first meet and greet cookout in our first year was memorable for very bad reason. Me, my dad and one other guest got a bad case of food poisoning. It was to the point where we almost went to the hospital, but the nearest hospital was so far away we didn’t think we could tolerate driving that far in the car. The three of us were laid up for a good 3 plus days. This episode is one of the reasons I try be extremely careful about food safety in my own cooking. I would never want to inflict that pain on anyone else. When I think of that incident, the other thing I think about, is the fact that the owners apologize profusely, and that was good enough. These days I think people would be calling lawyers and suing. There's something to be said for simpler times.
  • When we stayed up at Lake Winnepesaukee, the grill would be in use just about every night. One episode I remember is when my dad made some baked potatoes. The baked potatoes would be wrapped in foil and grilled directly on the coals. When they were done, my dad would put on a pair of barbecue gloves and reach in and grab the foil wrapped potatoes out of the coals. This one night we were sitting inside having our baked potatoes and we could smell smoke. We ran outside only to find this so-called Fireproof barbecue gloves were on fire. I was impressed at the time about how calm my dad was. He casually picked up a pair of tongs, grabbed the flaming gloves and put them on the grill and then put them out with water. We have no idea how this happened because when my dad took the gloves off, he put them down on a picnic table several feet away from the grill. Definitely one of life's little mysteries. But we did have a good laugh about how well the "Fireproof" barbecue gloves burned.
  • I mentioned earlier about the grill being open and how you were not able to indirect grill. This had a definite impact on your food. Thick items which you would sear and then indirect grill these days, we're direct grilled all the way. My dad usually didn't overcook the food. But with a thick item by the time the inside was done, the outside had the appearance (and often the taste and consistency) of a charcoal briquette. I just remember thinking that was part of grilling a thick item. If you wanted to cook a thick item on the grill, then you had to put up with the charred exterior.
  • When I moved back from Michigan to Massachusetts after college, my dad had finally bought a gas grill. Gas grills were just starting to come into fashion when I was in high school. The grill my dad bought was actually the same one I bought when I got home from college. The reason I mention this is because I was able to use the same rotisserie attachment on both grills. For various holidays I would bring my rotisserie attachment over and cook a rotisserie roast on their gas grill. At this point I'd found out about putting the drip pan under the roast and I managed to turn out some really excellent roasts. But this wasn't the fun part for me, it was actually cooking the roast that was enjoyable part. Now that my dad was older, he didn't like being out in the direct sun. We would put the garage door up and roll the gas grill so it was just inside the garage door opening. This would give us some shade and keep us out of any rain. He and I would sit out by the grill and watch the spit turn for two or three hours at a time. We would have long talks, and just like when I was a little kid: I can't remember the topics of those talks, I can just remember it being a ton of fun.
  • These days I have taken over the grilling chores. My parents no longer have a grill and any grilling is done over here. I try to make sure that we have a nice meal for my parents every Saturday afternoon. Since I'm cooking that means it's being done on the grill or smoker. I have an EZ-Up Shelter that protects my grills from the elements, and also serves to provide shade in the summer. Every once in a while my dad still comes and sits outside with me while I grill. But I also have a house that has central air and there's a nice big HDTV in my office, so I certainly don't blame him if that's where he chooses to hang out while I'm grilling. But once in a while he'll still come out and spends some time by the grill.
  • One of the interesting things that has happened, is my dad is moving outside of his comfort zone somewhat. My dad never liked spicy foods very much and he had a certain range of foods that he liked and he never ventured outside of that range. One of the things that's happened with my grilling, is that I am trying to go outside the box, trying to find new foods from all over the world to try. In the past I'd mentioned different things to my parents that I was going to try, but that I'd be making those things during the week when they weren't around. In the last year or so my dad has gotten a bit more adventurous about what he'll try and lately he's downright surprising me on some of the things that he says he'll try. Nine times out of ten he actually ends up enjoying them. So lately it's been fun exposing my dad (and my mother) to new foods. Particularly when they both say they are getting tired of the same old foods and that everything tastes bland to them. That is one thing they certainly can't say around here.
So happy Fathers Day dad! Thank you too for the patience you showed while grilling. I know now that some of what you went through was a real pain in the neck, but you never showed it. If you had made grilling seem more like a chore, I certainly wouldn't be where I am today. So thank you for letting me grow into this grilling hobby. Some of the best times I've had we're times I spent with you just sitting outside by the grill talking about who knows what for hours.

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