Extreme Cuisine: If the Weather Looks Dicey, Fire Up the Grill
Inclement grilling. This term has been used in my family for as long as I can remember. It means grilling through obvious environmental adversity. Crap weather. Powering through rainstorms for your reward. It means finding a sheltered end of the yard so a 30-knot wind doesn’t blow your steaks away. It’s an endeavor that requires extra thinking, ingenuity and a sense of humor. The Caddyshack kind.
Grilling when you shouldn’t also adds an “in it together” dimension to what would otherwise have been just any other outdoor dinner. What great story ever came of the time everything went smoothly? As expected? A deliberately terrible choice separates the adventurous from the staid, even among your guests. It attracts the ones who have the mettle to be your partners in crime. Those who hanker for a little adventure, even if it’s just in a backyard.
When Hurricane Frances brushed by the Mid-Atlantic, we broke out the umbrellas and gambled. The radar showed a pause in the rain that looked, to irrationally optimistic eyes, just long enough for medium-rare steaks. Twenty minutes later there we were, laughing our asses off as drizzle progressed to dousing then to full-fledged sheets of water. Constant repositioning of the umbrellas kept dinner cooking while we soaked through. The fire lived. The steaks came out acceptable. But our efforts became personal legend.
In cold, practical terms this kind of grilling is an advanced course. My business is live-fire cooking so I’m a purist about using whole wood for your fire. The key to being successful in this is to accept that every fire will be different. Learning the characteristics and personality of fire is first, and far more important than knowing recipes. One longtime customer, Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, says, “It is such a dynamic machine that we now customize our style of cooking—to it. We’re constantly challenged to use it to its full advantage, which makes it less like a tool than a source of inspiration.”
Inclement conditions test anyone’s fire skills further still. Jedi stuff. If the challenge is air temperature or wind, the lesson is how these things affect cook times. If heat and humidity, how that might affect the moisture level and, in turn, the smoke your firewood will generate. If the challenge is rain, well then beyond a good set of umbrellas or awnings, the challenge is closer to staying serious long enough to pay attention to the food.
With December, January and February comes the potential for the biggest treat of all: grilling in the snow. At our farm in Michigan we can count on a couple feet of it around Christmas, setting the stage for a North Pole–style campsite around the flames. No landscape sounds as quiet as a snowy one, no night is so atmospheric as one passing a few snowflakes through the firelight. When white drifts extend into darkness past the light of flames, it’s about as close as I can imagine to what our ancestors must’ve experienced around their fires. Of course, our bourbon, jackets and grills are a bit more advanced, but hey—progress.
These experiences sound silly and, if done right, they are. The silliness is a large part of the point. We could stay inside when it’s sensible. Put away the grill for the cold months. Only grill when it’s “nice” out. But I wince even considering it. Live-fire grilling is as much community as it is cooking, and when it turns—or descends—to the inclement you’re all tackling a challenge together. You’re grilling “even though” it’s blowing, raining or snowing, inevitably landing dinner in the precious “remember when we” lore that every human values. We may not be sheltering around a fire hiding from cave bears, but the bonding is still there.
A summer BBQ is just another party. A night of inclement grilling is a laugh-till-you-cry challenge; one that forces you to earn your good result, and even if you fuck THAT up you won’t fail in taking your friends on an adventure they won’t forget. One that has everyone huddled together long after the food is gone. One where your bourbon gets its splash of water from melting snow. One where another log always goes on the fire.