Are barbecues problematic? There’s the drearily entrenched manliness, the carcinogens released by charring, the campylobacter and salmonella from raw meat juices hitting your halloumi salad, sure. Then, worse, the scourge of disposables, that absolute tinfoil catastrophe. A million a year went to landfill before supermarkets stopped selling them last summer. “Going to landfill” suggests people were patiently waiting for them to cool down then disposing of them carefully, when of course they were mostly left to injure meat-crazed seagulls, or catch fire and cause devastation. They’ve been responsible for destroying homes, damage to a Dorset nature reserve and Saddleworth Moor, among many other blazes. Some retailers have backslid this year, with the British Retail Consortium suggesting users grill “responsibly”, which, yes, is definitely going to happen when you’re five tinned negronis down with moderate sunstroke.
So in that sense, of course barbecues are problematic. But as grilling season sizzles acridly across the backyards of Britain, are they problematic for me, a woman who doesn’t eat meat, whose fake hair retains smoke far more lastingly than real hair, married to a man who managed to snaffle one of those prized Aldi egg barbecues a few years back? Yes and no.
On the yes side, barbecues are a lie, the lie being that cooking on fire is “easy” and “natural”, when it is in fact a massive faff. Becoming a pit master is onerous, and intense. You can’t just chuck sausages into the egg’s maw: it demands priestly reverence, hours of preparatory ritual and charcoal from the sweetest-scented sustainable sources. When the vestal fire is deemed propitious, some beast is laid with tender solicitude on the embers, but even then your problems are far from over. The cult of “low and slow” cooking means it takes all day, and often much of the night. A digital display unit linked to a temperature probe left in whatever animal is being cooked must be carried around neurotically like a baby monitor. When it beeps displeasure, agonised debate ensues: too hot, too cold, more fuel, more air, or just hope it rekindles or cools? To be left in charge, even for a minute, is a heavy responsibility that I’m incapable of discharging adequately. Is it worth it? I have no idea but my spouse rarely seems fully satisfied – pit mastery is very much a journey, not a destination.
But there is barbecue joy too, in the shape of Barbecue Showdown on Netflix, my new summer viewing. In it, Americans grill gigantic meats, scrutinised by the Mississippi Mary Berry, Melissa Cookston, seven times BBQ world champion, a woman with a stare that could stun a steer, and laidback-unless-you-disrespect-meat chef Kevin Bludso. Watching is practically a holiday for me: it has its own language (“smoke ring”; “mop sauce”, Melissa explaining how “gases adhere to the myogloblin”); some challenges require mastery of a terrifying shallow grave filled with fire called “the trench”, plus there’s the merciless sun under which they grill: I get sympathy sunburn just watching. It’s fun, diverse, low stakes – the meat is always edible – and as a commentator who doesn’t know Paul Hollywood’s name but is nevertheless wise, writes: “Tom and Prue never ask the bakers to dig a hole in the ground, fill it with fire, then hurl a fifty-pound slab of beef on top of it.” Your move, Channel 4.
In the “it depends” territory, I place my son and his housemates’ recent first barbecue. It started wholesomely enough, with requests for salad suggestions and fish advice – his father got misty-eyed on the family WhatsApp explaining what to do with a mackerel – but soon degenerated. One housemate insisted 15kg of chicken for 16 people plus four burgers per person was the correct quantity of meat, and claimed it was a matter of honour to barbecue with your hands and without any tools. “I am powerless to stop this insanity,” wrote my son, sending pictures of anaemic mountains of budget thighs, glistening with campylobacter, or something. We heard nothing until late next day, when repeated prodding produced a laconic: “It was kind of exhausting – we set off another house’s fire alarm and had two fire trucks called.”
I think on balance this leaves me at “problematic”, but fair play to my husband, he puts a lovely sear on tenderstem broccoli. If he lets me sully his grill with tofu one day, I could be persuaded over to the charred side.
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