Partners with nature when grill heats up

April 07, 1999|By Rob Kasper

ON A RECENT soft spring evening, I subjected the backyard grill to a bout of spring cleaning.

Like a lot of chest-thumpers, I had cooked on the grill during the winter. It was a point of manly pride or, at least, it seemed to be. But after several months of fighting an icy wind, I began to think the impulse to cook outdoors in bad weather might be the sign of some genetic flaw, nature's way of saying that I was not the brightest porch light on the block.

After all, generations of civilized men had been erecting structures that sheltered them from inclement weather. And here I was running out of a dwelling that had central heating, so I could tend to a hunk of meat as it roasted over hissing embers.

When you think about it, the behavior doesn't make much sense. So I have tried not to think about it, especially now that spring has arrived and Mother Nature is treating backyard barbecuers with a modicum of kindness.

The other night it was warm enough to linger in the back yard, not scamper back into the house as I had to do during January and February.

Being a primal kind of guy, I rely on charcoal and matches to make my fires. I know gas grills are the rage, but I oppose them on philosophical grounds. Cooking outdoors should be an atavistic activity, an undertaking that reminds us of Java man, Peking Man and all the guys who have roasted beasts over an open fire. That sense of history, that link to cookouts of the ages, is lost, I think, when you begin your feast by turning on the gas.

Gas grills are like powerboats. They use technology to quickly get you to a destination. They give you a sense of control. Charcoal grills are like sailboats. When the wind blows hard, you have to adjust. Part of the pleasure of the experience comes from working with nature.

This partnership with nature carries over to cleaning my kettle grill. For instance, I rely on the flames to do most of the work involved with cleaning the grate. After the coals have warmed up the metal grate, and after a few loose food particles have caught fire -- there is a little pyromaniac in every good griller -- I rub the grate with either a brass grill brush or a crumpled paper towel.

On most outings, a few swipes at the hot grate wraps up the cleanup effort. But the other evening, because it was spring cleaning, I took a few extra steps. I cleaned out the inside of the kettle bowl and removed all the ashes from the bottom of the kettle.

Ordinarily, I like to keep some ashes in the bottom of my kettle. The ashes reflect the heat and remind me of meals gone by. But when I checked with the experts, the folks at Weber-Stephen Products in Palatine, Ill., who operate a hot line (800-474-5568), answering all kinds of questions about grills, they told me to lose the ashes. Cold ashes absorb moisture and may cause the metal ash sweeper on the bottom of the kettle to rust, they said.

The kettle-cleaning experts also recommended washing the interior with warm soapy water and a sponge. You can scrub the interior of your kettle with a soap-soaked steel wool pad, they said, as long as you don't rub too hard. If you rub too hard, you will scratch the porcelain. I avoided any scrubbing by simply washing the bowl out with water from the garden hose. It is a spring-cleaning tip passed down to me from Java man.

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