Unlike most folks, I learned to grill meat over wood. I grew up on a small farm in Eastern Tennessee within sight of the Smoky Mountains. Only about half of the 40 acres we owned were cleared, the rest was forest. This meant we had a ready supply of wood for grilling — including that southern king-of-smoke, hickory.
Dad built the grill out of concrete block, which sounds ugly, but the block was “faced” for architectural use and looked more like hewn granite than concrete. The firebox was about 3 x 3 feet square and Dad had an iron grate made to fit that the actual cooking was done on. Even for a family of six, the pit was overkill, but at least once a summer my parents would have a big lawn party and invite 30 or so people, and that’s when the grill came into its own with three or four chickens and half a dozen sirloin steaks (from our own grass-fed cattle) going at once.
But party or family, the fires were built the same way, and one of us kids usually built them (under Dad’s supervision). We’d begin by collecting twigs ranging in size from something the size of a match to larger pieces 1/4 inch or more in diameter. Using these we’d build a teepee with the tiny stuff in the center and progressively larger pieces stacked on the outside. The initial result was a teepee about four inches in diameter and six inches tall.
This was fire-starting as art. The goal was to start the fire with a single kitchen match. If you failed to choose the smallest pieces correctly (if they were too green or moist from lying on the ground) you needed more matches or — sin of sins — newspaper. But one match or several, once the flames were going we’d add larger and larger pieces of wood. Timing and fine motor control became critical as you built the fire up; too much big wood too soon or carelessly added would crush the flaming teepee and you’d have to start over. But not enough wood added soon enough and the fire would burn out on its own before the larger wood ignited.
Within an hour and half, though, you’d have small logs burning away, a bed of coals perfect for grilling over, and a deeply satisfying sense of accomplishment. Not to mention the atavistic joy that comes to every boy’s heart when something is burning.
To go along with whatever was being grilled we’d often have potato salad, which I loved, or cole slaw, which I ate but never cared much for. As they became available we’d have homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers, corn on the cob, green beans, and okra. Homemade ice cream made in one of those old hand-cranked ice cream makers was a fixture, although sometimes Dad would fix his buttermilk/pineapple sherbet. The sherbet would be frozen rock-solid so you had to let it melt to eat it — which pretty much defeated the purpose.
These meals were a fixture of our summer weekends, eaten outside under the trees with two or three dogs keeping an attentive eye out for anything that fell to the ground.
As I grow older I become less inclined to cook fancy dishes composed of long lists of ingredients, difficult techniques, and subtle nuances. Instead, I turn more often than not to simple tastes laid against each other like kindling and fanned into bright crackling flavors.
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