Manning the grill triggers high anxiety

by Bryan Salvage
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Growing up, my mom prepared all meat and poultry products just one way: well done. This was particularly true when it came to barbecuing proteins on the grill.

Each year when summer finally arrived, we’d drag our little Weber grill out of our cluttered, small garage, chase the spiders from it and give it a thorough cleaning and scrubbing using several Brillo pads a wire brush and a hose.

Great barbecuing is truly an art, but unfortunately no one in our family was ever taught the finer points of barbecuing — so we winged it. As I entered high school, preparing the charcoals, starting the fire and keeping the fire going was assigned to me. I dutifully would place a small pile of charcoals to one side of the grill and soak them—and I mean soak them—with charcoal lighter fluid. My right hand would get cramps from squeezing the lighter fluid so long and hard onto the charcoals. I had to go through this routine several times because the charcoals would never catch fire on the first, second or third match. I ultimately squeezed so much lighter fluid onto the charcoals that our back yard smelled like a runway at O’Hare Airport.

Once the charcoals finally caught fire, then my mom took over. She would primarily barbecue hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken and pork chops. Since she was always afraid she’d get food poisoning from undercooked meat and poultry, she would dutifully overcook everything. Hamburgers would resemble black hockey pucks; our hot dogs would split and they seemed to exhibit a black ash coating; and the pork chops and chicken were equally black and devoid of any moisture. As a result, I began using a lot of condiments at a very early age to help make the well-done proteins a little more palatable and easier to swallow.

I tried my hand at barbecuing several times in the back yard, but my family complained the meat and poultry was never cooked long enough—so I relinquished these duties back to mom.

Fifteen years later when I bought my first home, it came with a small dual-burner grill fueled by natural gas located right outside of the back door. I loved it because it had an electric starter and started right away, I didn’t need charcoals or lighter fluid so I didn’t singe my eyebrows when I started it…and the heat could be easily controlled. It did a pretty good job. But unfortunately, the burners had to be replaced often and it was a very dark area after the sun set.

Now 35 years after buying my first home, I now have a dual-burner portable grill fueled by propane gas. It’s a pleasure to use and I occasionally add smoke to whatever’s being barbecued by using cedar planks or wood chips in small containers. Although I’ve come a long way in my barbecuing skills, I am far from an expert grill master and my stress level elevates whenever our family entertains and I have to man the grill.

I really envy and respect those meat and poultry processors and restaurants that offer great-tasting barbecue products because barbecuing never came easy to me. Thankfully, more barbecue restaurants are now springing up throughout the US. But there still remains a lot of mystery surrounding the art of barbecuing.

The most successful barbecue restaurants cook product, serve it, run out and close their doors until the next day — day in and day out, insists Jeffrey Savell, Regents Professor; E.M. "Manny" Rosenthal Chairholder, holder of the Cintron Univ. Professorship in Undergraduate Teaching Excellence; and Leader, Meat Science Section, Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M Univ., College Station, Texas. He also taught UGST 181 Texas Barbecue at the university, which is being featured in the June issue of Meat&Poultry magazine.

“Holding barbecue waiting on customers is the most difficult thing to do and that is why there is so much mediocre-to-bad barbecue,” Savell said. “The best barbecue is when people wait on the barbecue — and not when barbecue waits on people.”

Savell told me he isn’t sure there are any barbecue chains that routinely rank very high. Most of the top-ranked barbecue places are one-store operations, he said. “The dedication it takes to prepare great barbecue day in and day out is something that is quite difficult to franchise,” he said.

Several processors have made great pulled pork, spare ribs and even smoked briskets, Savell continued. Attention paid to the right amount of smoke, proper temperatures of cooker and endpoint of products, and how the product is handled after it is cooked results in good products.

“Cooking great barbecue is more of a marathon than sprint,” Savell cautioned. “Regardless of the size of the operation, there is nothing fast about barbecue so the traditional high-speed operations have to figure out the best ways to do this without sacrificing the quality of the barbecue.”

To those readers who have mastered the artistry of superior barbecue, I salute you — and I have one request: Pass this craft onto your kids. (It was no fun eating well-done barbecue back in the old days or going through my high school summers with singed eyebrows every now and then.) Your kids, and their future families and friends, will thank you for that in the years to come.

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