Burning With Passion

It is Sunday. It is sunny. Warm. Today, I will grill the tender flesh of barnyard animals over a fiery bed of crimson coals. I state this not in celebration. Nor do I state it in shame. I state this

Sep 6, 2001 at 2:06 pm

It is Sunday. It is sunny. Warm. Today, I will grill the tender flesh of barnyard animals over a fiery bed of crimson coals. I state this not in celebration. Nor do I state it in shame. I state this only to gratuitously goad the predictable folks at PETA into a weeklong frenzy of writing letters of outrage.

Just pre- my teen years, I couldn't get enough of fire. I'd start fires — roaring, tenuously controlled campfires — almost daily in the woods near my house. Once one got going, I'd sit, stock-still, for long stretches. Staring into the flames.

Mesmerized. My mind nowhere, empty. It was like TV but for a marginally higher denominator.

I lift the lid off my grill with a sudden pop, it's edge having been held tight by aged, greasy gunk. This action stirs ash and grit into a low-hanging cloud. I adjust the various soot-gummed vents; scrape the largest of the charred meat crispies and glutinous fat drippings from the black, carbonized grate. And suddenly, the possibility of E. coli in the hamburger seems like just one bullet in a loaded gun.

For obvious reasons, I made every effort to keep my pyrothusiasm ("not quite pyromania") secret but was occasionally found out. Busted. At those times, my parents would rail at and punish me. "What is wrong with you?" Dad'd demand. "Do you want to kill yourself?" Mom'd ask. Decades later, I'm still working on those tough but fair questions.

Fire time. These days, my preferred method of firing up the charcoal is with a chimney starter — i.e., a tall, steel cylinder that I fill with briquettes, then ignite by lighting some newspapers stuffed into the bottom. The upside of this method is it gets coals going without a noxious petroleum product — like lighter fluid, gasoline or Dick Cheney's cranial fluid — that can be tasted on the food. The trade-off is that you don't get to repeatedly squirt silvery ropes of hugely flammable juice into smoldering embers and send up monstrously cool, erection-erecting fireballs while intoning phrases like, " I am the Great and Powerful Oz."

At some point, I discovered the very combustible nature of many everyday products, from aerosol deodorant to Brut, Nyquil to hairspray. Flare-ups and flashes and bursts and blasts were now possible. Yow-ee! For such good times, I'd gladly trade the permanent loss of 10 pairs of eyebrows.

I arrange an assortment of marinated fare on the grill. Marinades, I'm afraid, have subverted the purity, simplicity and spontaneity of barbecuing. It's no longer sufficient or acceptable to extemporaneously slap, say, a butterflied pork chop, naked, onto the fire. Rather, it must have first been submerged in a chilled bath of orange juice, Merlot, olive oil, oregano, garlic, turmeric (you've got to get rid of it some place), your choice of at least two but no more than three spices mentioned in a Simon & Garfunkel song, fresh ground pepper, exhausted ground pepper and the zest of a single caper, for up to 48 hours. Oh, to return to the days of the plain and simple, fast and easy, phallic and fat-packed, mysterious and deadly hot dog.

Insects became unfortunate victims of my firebugginess. Caterpillars, moths, spiders, ants, beetles, daddy long legs, mayflies, all creatures slow enough to be caught and defenseless enough to not meaningfully resist were consigned to the flames without regard or regret. Looking back, I can't help thinking that if the 6th Commandment is meant as an all-inclusive, black-and-white kind of thing, I'm one hopelessly screwed son of a bitch.

To barbecue well takes knowledge and control. Steaks should be grilled at a higher temperature than shrimp. Leg of lamb requires more time per side than leg of hummingbird. Portobello mushrooms, bell peppers and tofu must always be "accidentally" flipped down into the coals where vegetables belong. And, guys, remember, when you put on that special barbecue apron you got for Father's Day, you really don't qualify as a guy anymore.

I stopped making fires in the woods the day Dad decided I was old enough to make them for him in the grill. This had nothing to do with the trust and responsibility he was showing me and everything to do with the fact that I now realized building fires was work and should be avoided at all costs.

Later, long after dinner has been eaten and cleaned up, I notice I smell like fire. Like smoke and charcoal and meat. This scent, it occurs to me, would make a good cologne. Maybe call it Eau de Feu. Or 12-Year Old Boy's Obsession. ©