Barbecues blaze on Memorial Day

Outdoor cooks crowd parks for traditional holiday feasting

June 01, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

With the temperature approaching 90 and the flies on the attack, Zan Dodson stood over one of the hotter spots in Maryland yesterday: a charcoal grill popping and sizzling with hamburgers and chicken breasts.

Dodson wouldn't have it any other way.

For nine years, Dodson and 40 members of Grace Bible Baptist Church in Baltimore County have marked Memorial Day as the unofficial opening of the barbecuing season. This year's weather was cause for celebration.

"The last four times it rained," he said.

The sun beat down on Dodson's church group and hundreds of other visitors to Piney Run Park in Carroll County, most arriving with grills, hamburger patties, hot dogs, salads and holiday-size appetites.

More grills are aflame on Memorial Day than on any other day of the year except the Fourth of July, according to the National Barbecue Association, a Kansas City-based organization that keeps track of Americans' love for lighting up grills.

So it was no surprise that competition for barbecuing space at Piney Run was fierce yesterday. Grace Bible Baptist Church members arrived at the park just after 9 a.m. to hold tables and grills. By 1 p.m., smoke rose from every available park grill.

Church parties, a graduation party, a family reunion and a company picnic occupied the park's five pavilions, the biggest of which seats up to 180 people.

Most pavilions are booked for Memorial Day and summer weekends as early as January, when park officials begin accepting reservations.

"The phone doesn't stop ringing," said Jackie Koch, assistant park manager.

Pavilions are equally popular at parks in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, where park officials report that families return again and again to their favorite spots. To accommodate extra visitors, Baltimore County recently added 40-by-60-foot tents at Rocky Point Park.

Under a canopy of oak trees in Piney Run Park, Leonid Shats tended a small grill piled high with pork shish kebab, part of a meal to honor his 18-year-old son Dennis' graduation from Owings Mills High School.

The Shats family -- which moved to Maryland from Baku, Azerbaijan, two years ago -- grills two or three times a month, including winter. But grilling in parks reminds them of outings they once enjoyed in Baku.

"You give yourself to nature. You purify yourself," said Dennis Shats.

In the Shats family, you can stuff yourself on pork marinated overnight with onion, white wine and vinegar.

"We don't like fast food," Dennis said.

The National Barbecue Association says Americans cook on grills 2.9 billion times annually.

All that cooking can contribute to poor air quality, experts say.

"In general, barbecuing is not the best thing for air quality," said Charles Piety, an ozone forecaster for the University of Maryland, College Park's department of meteorology. "It adds to the soup that creates ground-level ozone. Anything you do to add to that mix can be potentially harmful."

Grillers can adopt a few habits to be more environmentally sensitive, Piety said. It helps to start your barbecue later in the day, about 6: 30 p.m. to 7 p.m., when the sun and ozone levels start to go down.

The state Department of the Environment encourages backyard cookers to avoid soaking coals in lighter fluid -- which can evaporate into the air -- and to use electric lighters or chimney-type charcoal starters instead.

Despite the environmental concerns, try to imagine Memorial Day without a cookout.

"There is a sense of community in it, so people get outdoors with family. It's a direct backlash against the hustle and bustle of everyday life," said Carolyn Wells, executive vice president of the National Barbecue Association.

Wells said the latest trend in outdoor cooking is the a giant stainless steel contraption with multiple side burners, counter space, running water, storage shelves and a price tag that can rival that of an economy car.

One version comes mounted on a 40-foot trailer with hot and cold running water and enough grill space to feed an army. It costs about $60,000, Wells said.

Keith Cox of Finksburg could have used one as he perspired over a grill crowded with 32 pounds of hot dogs, burgers and chicken for members of the Church of the Open Door's singles group.

At a company picnic scheduled for this month at Piney Run, Cox said, he will get a chance to rest. It's catered.

"All we have to do is show up," he said.

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