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NewCityNet BBQ is A-OK

The coal hard facts of grilling

By Keir Graff

AUGUST 24, 1998:  First, let's get one thing straight: it's "BBQ," not "barbecue" or "Bar-B-Que" or any other variant thereof. And this is not populist hoo-hah, or Kountry Korn, in spite of the fact that some of the best BBQ is, in fact, performed by those who cannot spell "barbecue." No, those who first enriched our vocabulary, advertising their smokey wares by the letters "BBQ" crudely rendered on the side of a shack, were aware of an overriding truth, that BBQ at its best is a simple operation.

I love BBQ. When I was growing up in Montana --okay, as recently as five or six years ago--I would pass the time with my chums Shane and Schlieb by compiling lists of all the great things that begin with the letter B. Our theory--never refuted--was that all the best things in life begin with the letter B. BBQ, naturally, always crowned the list, clustered with beer, B-movies, beef (not redundant), breasts... well, you get the picture.

How do I love BBQ? I love the taste and smell of it, the depth and breadth and height of it, the soot and char of it. I do not mind if my steak is too crispy, or my chicken too rare (a little pinkness around the bone is practically unavoidable). I will not shrink from a frank that has slipped between the bars and landed on the coals, or a piece of fish that stuck to the grate and, upon removal, took on disconcerting traits of an alien autopsy.

Clearly, Chicagoans love BBQ as much as any Montanan; riding the El, one is treated to generous vistas of double-canister gas grills weighing down dilapidated rear stairways and landings. I have, like many of you, gone to ludicrous lengths for the taste of BBQ. Rain, wind and snow aren't worthy impediments when it comes to my desire to grill, and sub-zero temperatures that agonizingly prolong cooking times have only forced me to bring a hibachi inside, where I've cooked in comfort on the fireplace hearth. But what I refuse to do is make it complicated.

It seems that BBQ becomes more complicated every day. Debates rage: charcoal vs. gas, marinades vs. rubs, vegetarian shish kebabs vs. sea bass crusted with walnuts. Food writers assemble articles on grilling that make you feel like a piker if you think good BBQ means briquette-broasted burgers and a sixer of bad beer. They interview suburbanites or city-dwelling tycoons who have gear you could never afford and spare time you can't conceptualize, cooking everything from pork tenderloin to whole turkeys on their grills. While I have to confess that, on occasion, I have counted briquettes, I don't think it's right. So, just in case you're not among the burgeroisie, let me distill the essentials of BBQ enjoyment:

1) Meat. Beef, chicken, pork, fish. Some of you will cook corn, that's okay too. Frankly, I'll put anything on the grill that has the viscosity to hold together during the BBQ process. Red meat still sears the best, but bird, fish and even vegetarian entries will kick your mouth's ass when they get those grill cross-hatchings on them.

2) Marinade. Okay, some may quibble with this, but I'm not suggesting you combine twelve ingredients in a resealable bag and turn it every half hour all night. Marinade, though, helps all meat rise to its potential, and makes the BBQ a blessed event. So, an hour or three before you cook, douse that meat in some beer, wine, vinegar or salad oil and shove it back in the fridge. Add onion, garlic, bay leaves, pepper, sugar, hot sauce or whatever seems amusing. Don't have an hour? Try my uncle Dennis' quick fix: inject marinade directly into the meat with a hypodermic needle. For chicken, he recommends teriyaki sauce, garlic and orange juice and a 3cc needle. If you can't get ahold of a needle, what kind of city dweller are you?

3) Fire. Charcoal. Ignited with fluid, not by rubbing sticks together. I'm going out on a limb here, but those folks who say they can "taste the lighter fluid" are probably hypochondriacs, too. Just let the coals gray nicely before you cook, and it should burn off just fine. Regarding gas grills, let's just say the Good Lord didn't intend for us to have CONTROL PANELS on our grills when he invented BBQ.

4) A grill. Of some sort. Below the bars, brand names are practically irrelevant. Keep it covered between uses, and don't scrape too often. That gook hanging down from the metal bars? F-l-a-v-o-r. The only time you should really clean the grill itself is if there's actual, visible dirt on it. Don't worry, the heat sterilizes everything. Just make sure the thing doesn't set fire to your wooden fire escape.

It's as easy as B, B, Q.

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