Man and fire go way back. According to mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the Greek gods. Cavemen built fires for their families to survive. Blacksmiths built and tended fires to fuel their craft. And now suburbanites harness the power of fire to cook their perfectly seasoned steaks. When I think of grilling, I think of men. That’s not meant to be sexist and, if you know me at all, you know I’m a very independent woman and clearly do not always agree with traditional gender roles. If I did, P and I would starve. But when a grill comes to mind it is usually accompanied by a gentlemen holding tongs and wearing a “World’s Greatest Chef” apron.
Minus the one time I smoked meat, I’ve never successfully grilled. I say “successfully” because during our inaugural girls-only trip to the lake last year, we attempted to grill and ended up with the now infamous Lighter Fluid Chicken Incident of 2012. Too much lighter fluid and not enough actual sustained fire lead to fuel-flavored chicken breast. So, when we planned this year’s trip I promised them all that we wouldn’t have a repeat. A poor promise it turned out to be, as I did nothing to prepare for this year’s grilling attempt except to ask P if we could borrow his electric grill starter. The starting of the grill seemed to be the biggest hurdle.
Me: Can we borrow your electric starter for the lake this weekend?
Me: Why not?!
P: Because you will probably break it.
Me: No, I won’t.
P: Yes, you will.
Looking back, he probably had a point. Regardless, we ventured to the lake with no back up plan other than I would call P before we started grilling and maybe he could walk me through it.
6:31 p.m. I called P. “Hi, you’ve reached Patrick. I can’t come to the phone right now…” Voicemail. Answer your phone! What if I was stranded somewhere or on a game show trying to win millions of dollars?
6:32 p.m. I called Patrick, again. “Hi, you’ve reached Patr….” I hung up. At that point, I realized we were on our own. What do you do when your husband won’t answer the phone and you are in need of answers? Google, of course.
“How to start a charcoal grill”
I immediately found a very helpful website with step-by-step instructions.
Step 1. Clean the grill.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. What’s next?
Step 2. Create a cone of charcoal in the grill.
Alright. Not a problem. At this point, Bree was assisting me. As I went to pick up the bag of charcoal, she used the kitchen tongs to lift off the grill grate so we could put the charcoal inside the grill. Disclaimer: I don’t know if it is actually called a “grill grate,” but that is what I am going to call it. We did know the charcoal didn’t go on top of the grill grate. What we didn’t know was that you shouldn’t use kitchen tongs to lift up the grill grate. Within in a matter of seconds the tongs has twisted so they were caught in the metal grate. With the tongs no longer providing any leverage, the grate lost altitude and landed on my head as I was bent over attempting to pick up the bag of charcoal. Off to a fabulous start. We then spent the next several minutes playing what felt like a carnival game untangling the metal tongs from the metal grill grate.
Step 3. Pour lighter fluid on the charcoal cone. Pour more in the middle than around the edge.
Step 4: Using a long match, light the charcoal on the edge of the cone on two sides.
We didn’t have any long matches, but we did have a long lighter. On the 12th attempt to start the mechanical lighter tool, we had a flame. Rather, it was more torch-like than flame-like. I held it to the edge of the charcoal and instantly we had fire. I now understand why ancient civilizations performed dances to celebrate fire. And they didn’t even have charcoal, lighter fluid or a mechanical lighter. We did a little dance and watched the flames.
Step 5. Let the charcoal burn until it is all white and then spread it out evenly across the grill.
Upon reading that, we stopped dancing. The flames were gone. There was a little bit of white on the edges of four pieces of charcoal. So we thought, let’s just spread out the coals now. Bad idea. I’m fairly certain they were cool enough to touch at that point. Although, we were intelligent enough not to test our theory.
Back to Step 2b: Recreate the charcoal cone. Step 3b: Pour more lighter fluid on the coals. Step 4b: Relight the coals. Step 4c: Do not dance. Instead, stand quietly and don’t look at the grill. Maybe it will perform better if it doesn’t feel like it’s under pressure.
I don’t know if it was the copious amounts of lighter fluid or the alone time we gave the grill, but the fire returned. We spread out the coals. And the fire still burned.
So, I thought, “Let’s try the hotdogs first. You really can’t ruin those. Worst case scenario, we cook them on the stove.” Same with the corn. I had planned to make corn on the grill like P does and had texted him earlier asking how to make it. He said to shuck the corn first and then put butter, salt and pepper on it and wrap it in aluminum foil. I love that he knows to give me details like “shuck the corn first.”
The hotdogs and corn found their way to the grill. I shut the lid. And then I stood there staring at the grill not sure what to do next. How long do I wait? P said the corn would take 12-15 minutes. Six minutes later I figured it would be good to rotate the corn so that it cooked evenly. I slowly opened the lid of the grill. Smoke billowed out and momentarily blinded me. Well, this is fun. When I emerged from my overreaction, I lifted up one of the hot dogs with the tongs. The appropriate use of the tongs, I might add. Much to my surprise, I found grill marks. Let the grill mark dance commence.
And yes, the grill marks were from actually being cooked and not just because we didn’t clean the grill before we started.
And the foil wrapped around the corn was starting to turn yellow. I don’t know why exactly, but I know it is a good thing because that is what happens when P does it. Minutes later, the hot dogs and corn were complete.
Next up, hamburgers. I placed six hamburgers on the grill and immediately ran for cover. Flames leapt out of the grill, reaching higher than my head.
I ran inside, “Um, the grill is on fire.” Looking back, that was probably the wrong phrase to accurately convey my fear. I sprinted back to the grill. I don’t think you are supposed to leave grills unattended. Especially ones with crazy flames. I grabbed the multi-purpose tongs and quickly lowered the lid on the grill. Out of sight, out of mind.
I came to learn that it was the hamburger juices that were antagonizing the flames. Once the burgers had cooked long enough, the flames resumed their normal height and I flipped burgers until I thought they looked done.
Thankfully, I accidentally tore one patty in half with the tongs and saw they were cooked all the way through. I now have much greater respect for those than can cook hamburgers (or any meat) medium rare, medium, and well done. I have one type…well done. While the rest of the food was prepared, I reflected on my experience and determined there are three things a girl should know before she grills.
- You will get dirty. The charcoal is dirty, the meat has gross juices, and the grill is dirty. Everything is dirty. So, it’s not a good idea to shower and blow-dry your hair before you try to grill…
- You will smell. There is a lot of smoke and it follows you wherever you stand around the grill. It will find your eyes and make them burn. And then it will find your hair. So, again, it’s not a good idea to shower and blow-dry your hair before you try to grill…
- How to turn it off. There was no off button on this particular grill. You are supposed to close the lid, close the vents and let it burn out. Which seems contradictory to everything Smokey the Bear taught us.
The table was set, the food was consumed and I can confidentially say no one got food poisoning from my grill efforts. As we sat around the table together, we agreed that with all of our learning over the past two years next year’s attempt would be perfect. Third time’s the charm, right?