N.C. Harrison reflects on the arrival of fall, the loneliness of the barbecue pit, and the power of family traditions.
Barbecue season, or cookout season, is over in the popular imagination of most people with the advent of the Autumnal Equinox. In my part of the world, however, the summer season for standing over a grill is climatically unfeasible for such a course of behavior. With temperatures that can regularly soar over one hundred degrees, and even cast themselves over the one hundred ten mark on a bad day, I do not tend a grill, smoker or barbecue pit more than once or twice per summer–for my mother’s birthday and then for a family gathering on the Fourth of July. I do not get paid for this, am not a professional pitmaster, and so a heatstroke does not seem like an appropriate thing to experience in the pursuit of fine smoked meat.
In late September and early October, however, I’m outside almost every day. Most of the time I just use the little Weber gas grill I bought a year ago, slow broiling chicken until it is ready to fall off of the bone (my mom and sister prefer breast, my dad thigh…and I eat wing) or searing steak black on the outside, pink and cool at the center. My mom, who taught me much about cooking, won’t eat meat that’s red at all but, in the tradition of my culinary heroes Nigella Lawson and Anthony Bourdain, I find something primally satisfying, fierce in a caveman kind of way, about tearing into a piece of meat that’s kind of bloody. Blood is where the life force dwells, in the traditions of so many cultures, and I feel connected to them at these moments.
On the weekends, I use my hand-dug barbecue pit to smoke meat instead of grilling it. This is where the culinary myth making in my region happens, where man, meat and flame are combined to create delights which are almost inelocutable. In order to feed a small group, like on my mom’s birthday, I’ll chop oak and bank the fire to a rolling, smoldering two hundred twenty five degrees and thereafter pile brisket, pork shoulder, and some ribs onto the heat. For a larger gathering, like the Fourth of July or Labor Day, I get the pleasure of wrestling something bigger, like a half hog or whole hog, onto the fire–sometimes all the way down in the pit, raking the coals over it for a while. I then spend the entire day, beginning at three or four in the morning, tending it, placing on a chunk of apple or mesquite wood, mopping the meat with vinegar and red pepper, carving off a piece now and again to taste.
One of my favorite pastimes during this part of the year lies in trying out different sauces, idly imagining them while I work on the pit. I have created a Middle Eastern inspired barbecue sauce for lamb and beef which features harissa, rose-water and ground chili pepper paste. Another, which I loved, was a Chinese inspired sauce featuring fresh plum preserves, grated ginger, garlic and enough red pepper flakes to make it explosive on the the tongue. This tasted especially good on loin, pork ribs and pork belly–especially belly that had been deep fried after smoking. The best sauce I ever made is a huckleberry wine reduction with caramelized onions, brown sugar and tomato ketchup. It is heavenly on beef brisket but tastes like nothing on pork shoulder. For this wonderful, fatty cut, the only sauce that I will accept is a thin mixture of white vinegar, black pepper and red pepper flakes. Sauce is just a garnish, though–mere icing on top of the cake, and strong barbecue can stand up without it.
I am reminded, especially on early mornings, which always seem fey, when I stand alone with just the meat, a cleaver and the fire, of the opening of 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. Conan’s father, the swordsmith, stands on the mountain and harnesses flame and steel to create an instrument of power and magic while Basil Poledouris’ epic score swells around him. He doesn’t rest on his laurels after this, though, but goes instead to his son and explains the importance of the sword, the steel and the process of creation. “No one in this world can you trust, not men, not women, not beasts,” Conan’s father says, and then gestures to the sword, “but this you can trust.” Even though it’s a grim, barbarically existentialist message, it is one which is passed from father to son with love and the best heart.
Ingredients, when you cook them, don’t care who you are, the color of your skin, the creed you ascribe to. They will succumb to your mastery if you force them. This is a lesson that was passed down to me from my mother and grandmother, and which I will pass to my sons and daughters when I am lucky enough to have them. We will stand on the mountain and forge great barbecue together. We will also, using an iPod, CD player or whatever musical technology is available, blast the score to Conan the Barbarian,especially “Forging the Sword.” Some things just make life’s little pleasures seem so, so marvelous.