SEY YOUNG: Bad barbecue better than no barbecue

Self-taught griller shares past miscues

"Don't give me no broccoli

"Or any Swiss fondue

"Baby if you want to rock me

"Give me good ole barbecue."

-- Robert Earl Keen

We didn't eat out much growing up. Money was tight most of the time for our family of five and besides, my mother was an excellent cook. There were two important exceptions: every Mother's Day we would go to the S&W Cafeteria, and every summer when we would visit my grandmother -- who lived in Wilson, N.C. -- we would eat out at Parker's Barbeque. It was there I first learned the intricacies of what is called Eastern Carolina style barbecue: smoked whole hogs which are chopped and seasoned with a vinegar-and-red-pepper sauce. I was hooked.

My initial barbecue education was spotty. My father would grill maybe once a year in the summer, and then it would be hot dogs. My grandfather was supposedly an excellent griller in his day. Once, when my dad was dating my mother, he was tending the grill while my grandfather went to get the meat. The next-door neighbor came over to my dad in a lather, telling him that my grandfather's grill was two feet inside his property line. As he started to drag the grill away from the invisible property line, my grandfather came up and without a single word decked the guy in the side of his jaw. Having knocked out the man, my grandfather turned to my dad and said: "When he wakes up, tell him to get off my damn lawn." Rule No. 1 of grilling: Never touch a man's grill while he is cooking. Alas though, by the time I reached puberty, my grandfather had hung up his tongs. My route to becoming a grill master would be self-taught.

My barbecue education took a giant leap forward when I turned 17 years old. My best friend, David, married his high-school sweetheart, and they moved to a trailer about 10 miles out of town. I told him he should buy a barbecue grill, and we could entertain friends at his place. Together we went down to the discount store and bought a stainless-steel grill for $19.99, and we were in business. We set it up just outside the trailer with eight lawn chairs circling it. David had never grilled before either, but being the keen observer that I was, how hard could it be?

My technique was as simple as my limited knowledge: Pour a bunch of charcoal into the grill, soak it with gas, throw a match on it and then start cooking. For hot dogs and burgers, my flaming cauldron was adequate, but soon fate had a hard lesson in store for me. I got it in my head to invite my dad and mom, along with David's parents, to one of our cookouts. What better way for a cocky teenager to physically show his parents just what an extraordinary son they were blessed to have? David and I planned the menu. In order to impress our parents, we needed to up our game, so we decided we would grill chicken.

Having never grilled chicken before, I simply followed my prior cooking regimen. After getting my grill red-hot, I took eight large breast pieces, slathered them with barbecue sauce, and tossed them on the grill. Soon a fire worthy of the historic Chicago blaze was under way. The flames streaked upwards of 5 feet. To this day, etched in my memory, is the frozen look of simultaneous concern and pity on my parents' faces as they watched this amateur theater production of The Towering Inferno reenacted in front of them. I'm ashamed to admit that a liberal use of a nearby garden hose was employed by the author to contain the blaze.

Later, peeling off the blackened skin, I served the chicken, making the rookie mistake of not at least covering the carbon-flecked breasts with the barbecue sauce. Ah well, at least on that day I learned barbecue maxim No. 2: Bad barbecue is still better than no barbecue at all.

To be continued...

NAN Our Town on 11/14/2019

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