Grilling the Gamble

When I attended University of Wisconsin-Madison, post winter grilling season resumed the first day you could stand outside in short sleeves without shivering. The guys set up charcoal grills, even buy the food, and we’d gather ‘round the open fire to drink beer and pretend to be cheese-heads. Dinner, cooked by the guys, was always delicious, solidifying my belief men are born with grill skill. Steak, when I was kid, a sure thing. Hamburgers cooked by college friends Steve, Dan, and Mike—four stars.

So when Todd and I looked for our first apartment together, I insisted on one with a balcony, for the Weber of course. If I was going to share my living space with a guy, the least he could do is grill me a decent piece of chicken. Our parents bought us the charcoal variety as a housewarming gift. I envisioned juicy steaks/burgers/chicken hot off the fire.

After my fiancé took the duration of a Kol Nidre service to assemble the thing, I watched as he added the coals, lit the fire, and peered through the grates. Hours passed (okay, maybe 15 or 20 minutes) before smoking commenced.

“How’s it going out there?” I ask, not really wanting the answer.

“Good, good,” he says. He is cheerful and unconvincing. “Really?” I ask.

“No, not really. It needs to heat up more, so we have to wait.” For thirty minutes he is on and off the balcony, lifting the lid, putting it back. I am sitting on the couch staring at a tray of raw chicken, wondering how long before salmonella sets in. I consider a nap.

“Can we cook yet?” I ask. “No, not yet,” he says. “But soon.”

So went our early grilling career. As I prepped the food, he’d mess with the coals, study the situation. Bored and hungry, I’d eat up all the side dishes before laying my eyes on done, mediocre-tasting meat.

“What is taking so long?” I ask my now husband. “Well, it’s really difficult to get the coals hot enough. I think this thing must be defective.” What he really means is “I do not know what I’m doing.”

The final blow was when friends come for dinner and we decide to grill chicken. Todd once again takes forever (the coals, the fire, the smoke) and conversation ceases due to everyone’s low blood sugar. Lame chicken, which we wolf down too hungry to care, is finally served. Our guests suggest heading downtown to Ghirardelli for ice cream sundaes to round out an otherwise pathetic evening of food. “Yes!” we cheer. “Who wants to drive?”

Three years in that one bedroom apartment and never once a great meal was eaten off the balcony. On moving day we gave the “non-working” (according to Todd) grill to the movers--for free. They were thrilled, but ask, “Are you sure you want to get rid of it?” Yes, I tell them, take us out of our misery. Their faces (we scored, dude!) imply at least one of them serves up a mean, hot burger. Our first Weber will be in good hands, I tell myself.

Yet my search for the road to fine steak continued. I wondered after a while if a gas grill might work better for us. So I researched, asking my dad, my brother, and a few guy friends, gas or charcoal? Weber or other? After tabulation a Weber gas grill was the answer. Maybe Todd can figure out one of those, I thought.

Instead, I ended up taking over at the grill. Sadly my results were no better.

“It needs to cook longer,” Todd would say every time. “Seriously?” my response.

“What do you want me to say?” he says as he opens the grill. “It isn’t done enough for me. And it’s not hot inside.”

“Hogwash!” I say, cutting into my steak. “Wait. Don’t close it. I’m throwing mine back on too.”

The struggle continued for the next three years. Moving day, January 2001, I resisted donating our second Weber to the movers and chant, I will figure out how to cook meat on a grill. I will. I will. I will. With four to six months to prepare in a new house with new aura, I was as hopeful as ever.

A month in the new house I came across the never been touched Weber Grill Instruction Manual/Cookbook, something I probably should have looked at a long time ago. I read the “How to cook every kind of meat imaginable” section. The Weber people are adamant about not lifting the lid to “peek” during the 5 or 10 minutes “on each side.” They practically swear on the bible that if you follow their method, all will be good and hot. So I decided to do what they said. I reread the “Cook Time” section each time I was about to cook a burger, steak, or a piece of chicken. I was tired of eating badly done meat, convinced this was the way to enlightenment.

But after more botched attempts, Todd was getting up from the table seconds after meat was placed in front of him. “Needs to go back on,” he would say. “You haven’t even cut into it!” my defense.

“I don’t need to.”

“Your brother always gets it so hot in the inside,” Todd says one day while eating steak at brother Larry’s house in Maryland. “Mm, mm, mm, look at the steam coming out of the middle,” he points out. “Why can’t you do this?” Larry sits there smiling, pompous.

My brother cooks all the meat in his house like every good husband should. He is as passionate about seasoning steak as he is about not crossing a picket line. He calls me a “communist” when I ask for mine “well-done.” If you don’t see blood, he says, it’s not worth eating.

When his wife Amy asks permission to roast peppers alongside steaks, he explains, yet again, that there’s not room on the grate for everyone. The suggestion to cook the steaks first, then the peppers is met with fury, usually. Once I watched him consider such a request. He pressed his lips together, cocked his head back and forth and said, “Okay, but this is going to throw the timing of our meal way off.” Do not speak to him while he grills, at least not if you want him to respond. He seems to go deaf as smoke engulfs his face, eyes locked on his dinner. The fact that he’s cooking for others is secondary, and why it will be perfect.

Only with a closed lid will he pay you any attention for a second, maybe two. “How do you know when it’s done?” I ask on one such occasion. “I don’t know,” he says, gazing into the distance, magic spatula in hand. “I just do.” Then he opens the lid, transfers the meat to a tray, serves himself and puts down the tray next to him.

“Larry!” yells Amy. “How about the rest of us?” “Oh, yeah,” he says, passing the steak. “Knock yourselves out.”

Moments later Larry looks up from his plate and asks, “How is it?” knowing full well the answer. “Perfect!” we say like we always do.

My sister-in-law is one lucky woman.