Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cooking Like Green Cavemen

Last week we finally made the big switch from propane to charcoal (with apologies to Hank Hill.) A few weeks prior, we had visited friends who grilled a fabulous dinner of Cornish game hens. And they made it look so easy! Dump some charcoal in a chimney starter, wait 30 minutes, dump hot charcoal into the grill, put hens on rotisserie spit, then go drink wine. The game hens literally cooked themselves, turned slowly over the hot coals by an electric motor. The grillmaster never had to worry about flare-ups, or flipping the hens, or thrashing them with a wet towel if they caught on fire.

We were so impressed that our friends bought us a charcoal grill and rotisserie so we could enjoy such easy and carefree grilling. For our maiden grilling venture, we opted for something fool-proof: chicken wings. We decided to light the charcoal at about 6:45 for an estimated 8:00 dinner time.

6:45: Since I had forgotten to save the newspaper, St. Pauli Girl crammed some old envelopes and bills from my office trash into the chimney starter before adding the expensive brand-name mesquite charcoal bought from a local store known for promoting organic health food and green practices. After ten lighting attempts, the envelopes on the bottom smoldered a bit. So, with smoke coming from the top, we let the starter rest for a bit on top of the grill to do its magic.

7:00: There may have been smoke but . . . no fire. St. Pauli Girl shoved the lighter through the bottom of the chimney starter to create some space to let the fire breathe. The paper seemed to catch this time and smoke again snaked from the top.

7:20: Supposedly, neither chimney starters nor this fine brand of charcoal require lighter fluid, but desperate times call for … so St. Pauli Girl squirted a liberal amount of lighter fluid on top of the charcoal and lit the chimney from the top. Success! Flames shot high into the night. [Note: do not try this at home. You could explode.]

7:40: We could actually see some gray charcoal on top of the starter, and it was somewhat warm to the touch. We dumped the charcoal into the bottom of the grill and put the chicken on. No sizzle, but it was a brand new grill with no old, congealed fat on it. That was our reasoning, anyway.

8:00: The wings looked the same—limp and white—as they had sitting on the kitchen counter, and the grill didn’t seem very hot. I pulled out the instruction manual and noted we should have twenty pieces of charcoal on each side of the grill. So we fired up another batch in the chimney starter. This time we used paper from the charcoal bag, and we set the chimney starter on the patio.

8:15: The chimney starter burned brilliantly, shooting off sparks like a Fourth of July ground-works display (did I mention we are in a drought?) Lesson learned: envelopes are apparently flame-retardant.

8:30: The grill is so cold we can lift it from the kettle with our bare hands. But the chimney starter is so hot, we have to use pot holders to dump it into the grill. We put the grill with chicken back on and can finally feel some serious heat.

9:00: St. Pauli Girl goes to turn the chicken. The heat has dissipated quite a bit, but the chicken looks darker. Of course that could be because the sun has gone down and twilight is upon us.

9:15: The charcoal still hasn’t really turned gray. In fact, the patio itself, holding heat from a 105* day, is hotter than the grill. We consider throwing the wings on the ground to cook but worry about ants. St. Pauli Girl goes inside to turn on the oven. I open a third bottle of wine.

9:30: The chicken goes into the oven.

10:30: Dinner is served.

Epilogue: After an intense post-mortem of this grilling exercise, we came to the conclusion that the expensive brand-name mesquite charcoal was seriously inadequate. A couple of days later we bought the cheapest charcoal we could find, and that evening, we made some fine hamburgers in record time.

The lesson: Expensive charcoal from an organic health food store probably does great at grilling tofu or bean sprouts. Real meat demands fossil fuels.


  1. I find it interesting that if you ever try to light a charcoal grill in front of other guys, you will get infinite hints about how you're not doing it properly and how they've got a fool-proof system for getting searing hot coals within 30 seconds of lighting them. But really, I've found it just comes down to using a hell of a lot of lighter fluid.

  2. Very true. And it's worse in Texas because those guys will swear they can light it with nothing but a toothpick, some yarn, a flint rock and an old rusty horseshoe... while it's raining.