Grilling leaves a blazing bad taste in the mouth Fire: Charring meat over an open flame is strictly a suburban tradition. City folks were more likely to turn on the hose if they smelled smoke.

July 04, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

GROWING UP in the city, I scarcely knew the social phenomenon of a crowd gathered round the grill for a cookout.

There were other customs where I lived. It wasn't unusual for us rowhouse dwellers to have a second kitchen in the basement that was used during the wickedly hot days of July and August.

There's a good reason why the suburban cookout was mostly foreign to us. If your urban neighbors noticed smoke, they didn't hesitate. They summoned the fire department. How could they detect the nuances between lighted charcoal briquettes and blazing roofs and window frames?

On a couple of nights in the late 1950s, my father set up a small grill on the concrete walk below the back porch of our Guilford Avenue rowhouse. Even though we invited our neighbors on both sides, they remained stone-faced, unconvinced and ready to squirt their garden hoses.

Clarence Dankmeyer, the very proper gentleman who lived to the north, was especially skeptical of fiery outside food preparation. He was sure the whole block would burn down. My grandmother, the chief cook in the house, went along with the exercise, gave a little wink and said nothing.

The grill, put away after these few tries, ultimately rusted in a damp Baltimore cellar.

Today, enthusiastic summertime chefs grill everything but the tablecloth. They cook corn, potatoes, onions and peppers over the hot coals, as well as seafood, chicken, beef and lamb.

Some of this outdoor cooking works well enough, but much of what I'm served by friends tastes as if it's been through Mount St. Helens.

I guess I've never outgrown the summertime food prejudices I developed as a child.

We ate very well without benefit of a smoky outdoor grill -- and nothing reeked of the blackened and obnoxious carbon taste that drives so many eaters into a state of food ecstasy these days.

Our chicken was delicious and pan fried. So were the tomatoes, soft crabs and crab cakes. (People were not so prissy about broiled crab cakes in those days. Besides, the broiler on our vintage Oriole range was given to acting up, summer or winter.)

Forget the grilled leeks, or whatever's in style. Give me old-fashioned, vinegar-marinated cucumbers, corn pudding, home-shelled lima beans, stewed tomatoes, peach pie, Baltimore peach cake and the slimy, wiggly dessert called blackberry flummery. It's sweet-tart, full of seeds and made your lips pucker.

For the same reason that people cook outdoors -- too hot in the kitchen -- we had a seasonal rule governing summer birthdays. No cakes were baked during Baltimore's torrid days.

My sister Josie, Great Aunt Cora and Uncle Jack were all July babies. They had cakes bought from bakeries, and plenty of ice cream, covered, of course, with South Mountain (Washington County) peaches.

Still, I wouldn't be telling the truth if I didn't admit that outdoor fire building was very much a part of my life on some dry July nights at the seashore. In the 1950s, there was no law against bonfires on the beach -- a tradition that has pretty much died out today.

The nocturnal bonfire was a part of the evening's routine. First we dug the pit, then found the scraps of driftwood to burn. There was always toasting of marshmallows, sometimes with a hunk of chocolate attached. Some unlucky barefooted fire-watcher always managed to tread on a live ember.

Nobody gave a thought to grilling a steak or hamburger. You watched a real fire, maybe lighted a sparkler and went to bed.

Pub Date: 7/04/98

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