Originally published May 24, 1984
With the Memorial Day weekend now at hand, the summer season begins in earnest. For most Americans that means thick steaks and juicy hamburgers edged with crisp char, or deeply burnished chicken flavored faintly with smoke and perhaps a rack of ribs sizzling in flavorful sauce.
The summertime habit of cooking and eating foods outdoors may be most thoroughly American culinary tradition of all, even though the exact origin of the word “barbecue” is open to dispute. Some cite a West Indian custom of grilling meats on a frame which, according to the conquering Spaniards, was called a barbacoa. Others explain the term in French, “barbe a queue”, meaning the whole animal spitted and cooked over an open fire “from head to tail,” as observed by eighteenth century French visitors to the Mississippi region.
The New England clambake, the Hawaiian luau and the chuck wagon cookout are all regional variations. In pre-air conditioned society it was certainly more comfortable to cook and eat out of doors. Once the fire was built, a great many mouths could be fed and so the community barbecue became a summer entertainment.
Have all the necessary tools on hand, including a bottle of water with a spray top to douse any flare-ups. Long-handled tongs, spatulas, forks and basting brushes are some other useful pieces. Heavy-duty foil is very handy for wrapping foods, or to place in the bottom of a grill under the coals to reflect more heat.
When grilling delicate foods such as fish or chicken, foil punctured here and there can be used to line the grate and protect the food from burning.
As with most cooking, high-quality ingredients will yield the best results on the outdoor grill. Beef or lamb grilled medium-rare are the easiest to cook properly on the barbecue. Just be sure that the steak is not so thick that the outside becomes over-cooked and heavily blackened before the inside is done enough.