I was Saved in the Summertime: Charcoal Living in a Propane World

This post is the first in the return of my blogging season (which strangely follows the schedule of Network TV).  With the ending of summer, I decided to do a series of posts reflecting on what the summer months taught me, that my years in school never could.

I learned early on to watch my Father closely when he arrived home from work. I tapered my response to him based on recognizing the signs of happiness or stress,  sadness or contentment that shaped the lines on his face.  It wasn’t that he was moody, as much as it was that I was a child, and as such I had the innate ability to study, download, and cross check the body language of my parents.  I learned to recognize the smile on his face, put on for my behalf, that  betrayed the reality of a long, hard day.   I’ve learned to imitate that same form of facial camouflage with my own children.

In the summertime, our family stayed alive by grilling.

This was my Dad’s responsibility. He worked very hard to convince my Mom that grilling was hard and dangerous work.  This one lie has been upheld for thousands of years. Most men willingly join in this deception for fear that if their wives actually came outside, stood around the grill, and saw what little work it was to cook meat, then women all over the world would head outside to start the grill while the Fathers were left to prepare the rest of the food, set the table, break up fights between the children, all while talking on the phone to their mothers. No, it was best to carry on the illusion that sitting on the driveway watching coals ash over was some kind of sacrifice performed for the good of the family.

I followed my Dad out to the garage, watching him wheel the black, round grill out to the driveway. He grabbed a vinyl tube strap lawn chair, carried it out next to the grill, and sat down. I followed close behind, grabbing another chair, dragging it out of the garage and setting it up next to him.  My Father was an architect when it came to charcoal placement. He meticulously placed each briquette in the bottom of the grill; replacing broken pieces with better looking ones; constructing and deconstructing until a replica of the pyramids of Giza stood before us.  He poured a quart of lighter fluid on the structure, lit a match, and set it ablaze. He sat down in his chair, put his toothpick in his mouth, and opened The Daily Journal newspaper.

I sat next to him, in silence, and studied Him as though He was someone I had never met yet seemed so familiar.  I watched his eyes through the thick lenses of his glasses, roaming back and forth across the pages of the newspaper.  I noticed His fat, flat fingers grasping the thin pages. His jean shorts, once a pair of pants, had tentacles of white thread that hung down his legs.  The hair on his legs was thick but tapered off toward the bottom of his calf. Years of wearing the same length socks day after day had left the area around his ankles hairless.  He had no idea how much I studied him as we sat in the stillness of those afternoons, the cooing of the mourning doves and cries of cicadas forming the soundtrack of my examination. Little was said in those moments, it was enough to sit next to him, feeling as though I had a place in the long line of flat-fingered Dupuis men providing food for the family.

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Of course, when you cook with charcoal you are forced to sit, to wait, to anticipate and respond.  The extra time needed to prepare to grill provides  just enough space for you to lift your head, see the world around you, and take a deep breath.  In the waiting, in the quiet, you see and hear all of the things you miss in the rush of life – listening to the far off voices of children riding bikes down the street, waving to neighbors driving home (before pulling in to the garage and closing the door behind them).  You begin to notice the trees with thick trunks and gangly roots pushing the sidewalk up a little more each year.  This is lost with the rise of propane grills.  Now I walk outside, push a button, turn a knob, and 15 minutes later we are eating dinner. Convenience has once again trumped the intentional, production has conquered the experience of producing.

So last week, I went out to start the grill for dinner. After I pushed the button and adjusted the temperature, I grabbed a lawn chair, and sat down beside our propane grill. A few minutes later, my Son found my hiding spot, walked outside, grabbed his lawn chair, and set it up next to mine.  I was staring out into the woods, trying to triangulate the position of a noisy woodpecker, when I could feel I was  being watched. I looked over to find my son, staring at me….studying me….curious. I smiled at him and rubbed his head. “What?” he asked with a grin. “Nothing “ I said.

I don’t think there will ever be a wholesale return to charcoal grilling. But maybe, maybe we can return to charcoal living, even in a propane world.  In a culture that thrives and feeds on business and schedules, and productivity; a world in which one’s self worth is derived from how many plates one has spinning at the same time.

Maybe in this world, there is still space to be found, silence to be heard, and life to be observed, even as it is lived out.

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3 thoughts on “I was Saved in the Summertime: Charcoal Living in a Propane World

  1. Love this. My dad was also King if the Barbeque. I always stood with him as he too meticulously built the cone of Q, lit it, only to have it die a few minutes later. My dad, unlike yours, would not have used a quart of lighter fluid. The family farm burnt down when he was only 13, so he has a deep-seated fear of fire. So, he would stack the charcoal on top of a cheater piece of crumpled newspaper and use a mere dribble of lighter fluid. He’d light the match from 6 feet away and toss it at the grill. This took several tries, since he was usually facing away from the grill, poised to flee if an exceeding conflagration ensued. Once it was lit and then inevitably snuffed, it was my job to fan it back to life with a folded newspaper. I learned all the tricks of the trade: he broke the code of silence by letting me in.

    When we got married, I expected my husband to be the King of the Barbeque at our home, but he refused to do it. His dad didn’t que, and he was intimidated. So, I suppose it’s OK that I know the secrets now, because my family would get no grilling if it weren’t for me.

    And yes, we have a gas grill, and it is quick in a pinch,but what do I usually use?The old Weber Kettle. It’s missing a handle, so I have to take the lid off with gloves, but I do it in honor of the years spent next to the Que King. I use a charcoal chimney so no more fanning the coals. And besides, everyone knows charcoal tastes better than gas anyway.

  2. Great story. Can’t wait for the next one. You have a good sense of what’s important!

    Sent from my iPad

  3. Awesome insight! Even as a daughter I sat next to my father as he cooked on a Hibachi, really the only talks I ever remember having with Dad.

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