Charcoal and the chicken

Southern Hospitality

Has anyone heard if we are having a charcoal shortage? As in charcoal for grilling, light up the fire, and throw on the dogs and hamburgers. Or, if it’s been a really successful grocery store (as we Southerners say) or supermarket (as Northerners say) trip, throw on the steaks!

Russell cooked on the grill recently, and he had a little baby mound of charcoal about six-by-six inches piled up. Of course, that was the same night I decided to cook thick, juicy steaks along with grilled veggie and onion packets. As soon as I saw the measly charcoal pile, I started whining, “That’s not enough embers.” And, naturally, when Russell saw the wide array of food to grill, he began groaning.

Grilling out is supposed to be one of the great American pastimes, but we can’t seem to perfect it in our family. We alternate replacing gas grills with charcoal, then go back to gas when the charcoal grill dies. If you ask me, gas grills always produce a flavorless meal. Sure, the food cooks in no time flat, and the grill lights every time (well, not really, but that’s another story).

The old-fashioned charcoal method isn’t a whole lot better. We buy the ready-to-light charcoal that’s supposedly “no starter needed.” That’s because it’s been soaked in gallons of lighter fluid beforehand. Only problem with that is, the food tastes just like kerosene. I mean, let’s face it, you can marinate that chicken forever and a day in barbecue, fruit sauce, teriyaki or whatever, but it always turns out the same.

Last time we had a family cookout, the crowd was sitting there enjoying each other’s company, wolfing down great big old burgers, when I stopped chewing and inquired, “Is this the way a burger is supposed to taste?” Everyone added an item or two – another pickle, a slice of onion, maybe a dab of mustard – but nothing disguised the chemical flavor. It sure makes a Jenn-Aire stove sound more and more appealing to me.

I found out I’m not the only person who has grilling nightmares. It seems that two of my friends, Austin and Mark, hosted a pig-pickin’ at the annual Georgia-Carolina football game last year. Mark arrived early at the stadium and made the usual preparations, just as he’d done more times that he could count, firing up the gas grill and placing the pig on the rack. He became suspicious when after about three hours, the temperature gauge pegged out at 500 degrees. When he raised the hood, to his astonishment, the pig was gone. Seems it had been cremated, leaving nothing but ashes and a couple of hard bones.

Mark called Austin to announce the startling find, and they both had a good laugh. Plotting a new course of action, Austin drove to the store to buy a dozen Boston butts to cook. But before putting the roasts on the rack, he “stole” a couple of charred pig bones. Last Christmas, he presented Mark with a UGA-red frame with two black, hard nuggets inside and the following inscription: “Georgia 41–USC 30. On this holy day, the chicken was fried and the hog was offered as a burnt sacrifice.” (The “chicken” being the USC mascot, the gamecock.)

I know you Georgia fans will say “well done,” especially if you’re still feeling burned by this year’s game.


- Ann Ipock

Author of Life is Short, But It’s Wide; Life is Short, So Read This Fast; and Life is Short, I wish I Was Taller