The art of the grill
Summer is the time to make the meat sizzle. OK, a little eggplant won’t hurt, either.
Barbecue season warms up with the sun. The top local event in barbecue adventures is the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook Off, the big barbecue bash every Labor Day weekend with live music, crafts and clowns and all sorts of hot-off-the-grill fun. It’s cheaper than Burning Man, and there’s better food, though less nudity. Of course, the best part is the ribs, barbecued by people who take their barbecuing so seriously that they join competitions.
But, for the rest of us, barbecuing isn’t about gearing up for the big day and perfecting the perfect baste. It’s about spectacular sunsets, grinning dogs, pink-faced babies, friends tossing a Frisbee, talking baseball and drinking beer. In short: taking her easy on a sunny afternoon.
The barbecuing world is a planet filled with argument. Direct versus indirect heat (some say that unless the meat is placed away from the heat source, it’s just grilling). The more efficient propane versus the more flavorful coal. What makes for a good sauce and when and how to baste it. Barbecuing is a hobby—a sport, an art—with as many different approaches as there are flavors. Everyone thinks they know the secret, and what that secret may be is always different.
There is, however, one basic principle to which almost all barbecuers ascribe: Cook it slow. This is, of course, part of the real appeal of barbecued food. Since it’s cooked at lower temperatures, it takes longer. Slow cooking at low heat preserves the natural juices and makes for better flavors. And since it requires the chef to be outside, it’s easy to find the chef in the pleasant position of being stuck outside with a lot of time on his or her hands.
It’s the creative and enthusiastic use of this time that is the mark of a truly great barbecuer. Socializing and beverage-sipping are the staple activities, but you can hatch your own afternoon plots, home-run derbies and tree-climbing—just be sure to keep one eye on your meat.
Where to go? The appeal of barbecuing in the comfort of your own back yard is undeniable. But the grill-less and the stir-crazy might opt to lead an expedition to one of the area’s many dynamite parks: Idlewild Park, Glendale Park in Sparks and Mayberry Park out west along the river are just a few of the best spots. However, remember to bring a grill brush because the likelihood that the last user carefully cleaned the grill is slim.
A few tips: It’s a common mistake to add barbecue sauce while the meat is still cooking. Barbecue sauces usually have tomatoes and sugars that will burn up quickly—don’t add sauce until the meat is about done. The optimum temperatures for cooking barbecue are 210 to 225 degrees; this relatively low cooking heat is the reason a longer cooking time is needed. Marinade your meat in advance; all you need for a marinade is equal amounts of an oil, an acid (such as vinegar) and sugar, and spices for flavoring—this is, you’ll notice, basically salad dressing.
Another important tip is that if you use lighter fluid to start the charcoals, burn off the fluid for a good long time—up to 45 minutes, depending on temperatures—before starting to cook anything. This might seem like forever, but remember that taking your time and going slow is the key principle of barbecuing (like so many things), and this is the way to avoid any revolting petroleum flavors.
A great thing about barbecuing is the versatility of what you can cook. Everything tastes better when you cook it on an outdoor grill, whether it’s steak or chicken or salmon or lamb.
“In Utah, they barbecue grasshoppers,” claims barbecue connoisseur and Alaskan wild man Jake Todd. “They flavor them and eat them like sunflower seeds. I’ve also heard of barbecuing sparrows.
“Rice is one thing you can’t cook on a barbecue. Or couscous.” But you don’t have to barbecue meat. Portabella mushrooms are one vegetarian favorite; eggplant is another.
Growing up in Alaska, Todd experienced some of the dangers that confront the barbecuer. “This one time, a black bear came out of the woods, and my Dad thought it was just a dog, so he shot it with a BB gun. But it wasn’t a dog; it was a bear, and he stole our steaks.”
“Cook it slow, roast it deep, aim for the meat,” Todd sums up the barbecue philosophy succinctly. “It’s just like with the girls. [But] never barbecue your neighbor’s rump roast.”
Things to talk about while you cook
“Barbecue” is an unusual word. It has several spelling variations, among them barbecue and barbeque, and it’s also one of the most recognizable abbreviations in English usage: BBQ. Since the stress is on the second syllable, it’s rather difficult to rhyme—though “I’ll lick you” comes close. But where did this strange word come from? According to www.barbecuen.com, the word reached English-speakers, by way of Spanish, from the Taino, an extinct indigenous culture of the Caribbean and southern Florida. In the Taino language, the etymological breakdown is fairly precise. The Taino word is "barabicu." The "ba" comes from "baba" (father), "ra" from "yara" (place), "bi" from "bibi" (beginning) and "cu" from "guacu" (sacred fire), so the word roughly translates to "the beginning of the sacred fire father." The modern meaning of barbecue—in both the noun and verb senses—had caught on with European settlers in the Southeastern United States by the 1660s.