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An Ode to Outdoor Grilling

Just a few weeks ago, the spouse and I bought a small inexpensive grill and put it in our backyard. Our “backyard,” of course, is the small plot of concrete that’s standard for the area of NYC in which I live. I wasn’t gung-ho about buying a grill at first, as the sheer fact that we had to chain it to the house made me think that maybe we shouldn’t be keeping something this expensive in our yard.

But! In the short time we’ve had it, we’ve used it several times. More than half of those times have been impromptu BBQ parties of various sizes, and that’s when the magic of the outdoor grill really occurred to me: it’s not merely a social event, but for some reason it lends itself perfectly to spontaneity. I think it’s because there’s almost no one out there who would say no to some grilling out. (By the way, is “grilling out” a regional term? I’ve always called it “grilling out.” Discuss)

Americans, and perhaps we East Coasters with our unpredictable and often terrible weather, tackle outdoor grilling with trademark stubbornness. Grilling season, of course, is stretched to its practical limit. It starts the moment the temperature climbs above 55 degrees, doesn’t take a break in the dead of summer when the temps rise above 90 and the bugs start attacking, and will persist long into the autumn months, when the leaves are changing and the gang is huddled under blankets and sweaters. I also can’t be the only one who’s participated in a grilling session that required the cook and comrades to be sheltered by umbrellas.

I think there’s something primal about grilling out, and I’m not generally one of those people who prescribe evolutionary reasoning to all human behavior. But it really does seem that we, as a society, are compelled to gather as a group to prepare and consume our food outside. It’s just sort of relaxing: the food, the camraderie, the probable booze, the music drifting out from an open window. It’s just feels right. It’s like a less-intense version of camping, because you get to use a real bathroom and sleep in your own bed. And there’s no risk of bear attacks. Unless you live pretty far out there.

(It’s probably the same compulsion that leads suburbanites and urban-dwellers to sit outside at restaurants even when “sitting outside” means eating your meal in one of a few awkwardly-placed tables on the sidewalk. Sure, everyone that walks by stares at you and your food, and you flinch a little every time a bus hisses at the stop, but at least you’re eating outside, dammit.)

There’s also a peaceful harmony that can exist among all types of eaters when grilling’s involved. The individualized nature of grilling – “Who wants their bun toasted?” “Who wants cheese on their burger?” – lends itself nicely to the inclusion of all dietary requirements. After all, grilling isn’t just for meat. Un-shucked corn, potatoes, veggie kebabs, and even garlic take on a delicious flavor when cooked on the grill. Add to that the delightful variety of side dishes traditional to an American BBQ, and carnivores and vegetarians alike can eat to their hearts’ content. (Speaking of side dishes, I still have a soft spot in my heart for that mayonnaise-laden macaroni salad that will probably lead to my ultimate demise. And now I really want some.)

So, clearly I’m happy with our new purchase. I peek out to the backyard every morning to make sure it’s still there, and I look forward to the day I no longer have to do that. But still. We’ve already made new friends with it, thanks to the fact that no one can say no to a BBQ, even when the host and hostess are two to three degrees removed from you and you’ve never met them before. And we’ve had the chance to spend some final quality time with our beloved neighbors before they move to another city in a few weeks. Having and using the grill has also made me finally feel in my heart that it’s summer. It doesn’t matter if I still need my light coat in the mornings or that the damp chilly rain just keeps coming. As long as I can eat a burger outside, it’s summer. Or rather, grilling season.

Photo: Getty

4 replies on “An Ode to Outdoor Grilling”

In MN I’ve only really heard ‘grilling’, not ‘grilling-out’. I love regional dialects and such.

I have used my George Foreman out on the deck – we aren’t allowed gas or charcoal on our wood decks. It’s silly, but fun. I am looking forward to a house with a small hibachi.

Unshucked corn is AMAZING on the grill! I’d never had it until last year, surprisingly. I’ve always prepared it on the grill by loading it up with butter and/or barbecue sauce, wrapping it in foil and grilling it that way. It’s good this way as well, but man, grilling unshucked corn is just delicious. It takes on a great, sweet smoky flavor.

I really want to try my hand at grilling tofu this year. I have had grilled tofu a few places and it was delicious, but I’m finding it very daunting!

I love “grilling out” (I think the term is pretty common cross-regions in the US) as you’ve described, festive impromptu parties with family, friends, and blended beverages. And of course, long-waged battles over the best methods.

But there’s also just plain “grilling.” When I was growing up, air conditioning was expensive and my parents both worked long hours. No one comes home from a long day at the office in July and gets excited about cranking up the oven or standing over a hot stove. Even if we ate inside, all the cooking was done outdoors, where the heat could dissipate into the chain-link backyard and we could dine under an elaborate system of open windows and ceiling fans.

And really, food on the grill just tastes better. There are a million ways to marinade or dry-rub meats and veggies. And with the right metal basket or a little aluminum foil, you really can grill just about anything.

I usually hear “bbq” here in Souther California and I have also heard people say “cook out”. I have had success grilling aluminum wrapped bananas, (leave peels on) sliced open and stuffed with chocolate chips. Quesadillas are pretty easy and delicious too. Tofu grills pretty well also. We have a grill on our patio at work and usually fire it up on Friday’s!

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