When I grew up, the term Barbecue or BBQ for putting something onto the grill was yet unknown in Germany. My family, as so many Germans, used to live in apartment buildings from anything between 6 to over 20 units, and barbecuing was something strictly regulated there. Every unit had a fixed number of BBQ opportunities per annum. I think it was around six; it may have been ten. And it made somewhat sense in these close surroundings. Back in the early 70s, most German grills were charcoal ones. In a house with even just six units, that would make up to 60 nights of charcoal smoke and ashes flying into other apartments’ windows and balconies.Barbecuing still holds a lot of magic for me – only not during a heatwave.
For whatever reason, my parents were not into grilling anything at home at all. I never asked them why. I know they didn’t like the smell. I imagine they didn’t care much for cleaning messy charcoal ashes, either. They had had their share of lugging wood and coal from cellars to top floor apartments to keep our home warm and of carrying the cold ashes three staircases down again. They might have simply gotten to the point when they were done with the “fun” of building any kind of fire. But, I remember us using the pits in picnic areas where we were awkwardly holding sausages, stuck onto big sticks we had gathered in the forest and sharpened to a point, over the open fire. I loved BBQs. Maybe all the more so because they were such a rarity.
Later, visiting with family in the US state of Maine, I encountered the typical American kettle grill for the first time. Every once in a while during my two all-summer stays, my Uncle Del would put the hugest steaks I’d ever seen (today I know they were London broil cuts) over a carefully built and patiently waited for charcoal glow. Thinly sliced, only salted and peppered, these meats, along with my Aunt Isa’s incredibly delicious mushroom and herb rice, are still memorable. Just talking about them, makes my tongue taste them again. These BBQs would have to last me for long years after.
Everything changed when I met my husband. Back then, one night during my first visit at his temporary home in England, he surprised me with a BBQ meal. And it was not a simple piece of meat, either, just flung onto the grill. It was a kabob, lovingly assembled on a spit with onions and bell peppers, seasoned top-notch. We were watching bunnies in his garden, while laying the table on the patio. We observed the horses on the neighboring pasture, while cobs of corn, wrapped in aluminum foil, were steaming away under a glaze of butter, salt, and pepper. And when everything was done, a turn on a vent and a flick on a knob shut off the grill immediately. No dust, no ashes, just cleaning off the grill residue later. And the culinary result? I was hooked. One of our wedding gifts would be a BBQ grill, by the way – from the above mentioned Uncle and Aunt.
We are still trying to perfect our grilling style these days, way beyond kabobs, steaks, and sausages. I have learnt to overcome my fear of fire and am quite capable of outdoor-steaming the crab we catch in Puget Sound during crabbing season. We plank fish. We grill shrimp and veggies. We are getting quite savvy about grilling times and produce thickness, respectively density. We rub and marinate. We coat and glaze. We discuss, and we time as we work side by side. We observe birds and squirrels in our back yard, while barbecuing. We sip a glass of wine, while watching the sundown.
Barbecuing is still very special to me. It might never become a normal, everyday thing for me. I love the smells and flavors. I love the relaxed atmosphere. Recently, with temperatures up in the 80s and beyond, our BBQ got a temporary rest. But oh, does the German child in me look forward to when the vent gets turned, the knob clicked, and the switch flicked on again!