The weather may be awful, but it is still a good time to light up the barbecue grill. That is the credo of the grillers for all seasons. We are men and women who refuse to accept the notion that cooking over a glowing, outdoor fire is an activity that should be confined to balmy weather. Our brains have been singed by smoke.
It is our credo that grilling is something you do the year 'round, with varying degrees of intensity. In the summer we are "grillside" virtually every night. In the winter, when it gets dark early, we are there mainly on weekends. It is a belief that pits us against prevailing notions of common sense and against the shelf-stocking habits of store managers. A virtual rite of passage for membership in the ranks of winter grillers is the experience of asking a store clerk, "Where in the blue blazes is the charcoal?" The usual answer, that the barbecuing "season" is over, infuriates us. We consider it the equivalent of being told, "We don't want your kind around here."
We have learned to cope. We survive by sharing off-season information. When an informant locates a dependable source of wintertime fuel, such as the 20-pound bags of hardwood charcoal at Pinehurst Gourmet & Spirit Shoppe in North Baltimore or the 10-pound bags of hardwood briquettes at Steve's Supermarket in South Baltimore, he spreads the word to fellow cooks. A smoker in quest of wood chips is told to travel to the second floor of a hardware store, Stebbins Anderson in Kenilworth Bazaar in Towson, or to a kitchen-supply store in a mall, Kitchen Bazaar in Towson Town Center, or to a garden supply shop, Watson's in Lutherville.
We who grill in every season would like to believe that our membership, like our aroma, is getting stronger. Unfortunately, a check of the data seems to support the store managers who replace barbecue supplies with rock salt and artificial logs.
The average grill owner used his or her cooker 4.9 times a month in 1991. This was record high usage, which the folks who use the data, Weber Stephen Products Co. in Palatine, Ill., were heartened by. However, to me and my fellow heavy grill users, folks who light up an average of five times a week, the statistics showed that the rest of America is much less anxious to start a fire than we are. Data on national charcoal sales carried a mixed message as well. Winter is definitely the down season for charcoal sales, said Sandy Sullivan, spokeswoman for the Kingsford Co., makers of several brands of nationally distributed briquettes. Only 25 percent of the nation's charcoal is sold from October to March. The rest is sold in warm months. But there were some small signs of winter fires burning. A 1987 survey of grill owners in the northeastern United States found that 34 percent fired up their cookers in the dead of winter, January to March. Fifty-four percent light their grills in the cold but not forbidding months of October, November and December.
Since the evidence says cold weather grillers are not exactly setting the culinary landscape ablaze, some of us have become missionaries. We venture to indoor settings, and tell anyone who listens about the joys of cooking outdoors. So I pass along some words of wisdom on winter grilling.
*Respect the wind. The wind is a major nemesis to a cold-weather griller. Don't fight it. If you do, the wind will retaliate by sending out fiery, airborne embers to frighten your spouse and your fire-insurance salesman. Instead, tuck your grill next to a brick wall, or some other fire-resistant windbreak.
*Brush off snow. While a smoking, snow-covered barbecue is undeniably scenic, the laws of thermodynamics dictate that you brush snow off the grill cover before you cook. Briefly those laws are: Snow makes the kettle cooker cold, thereby lengthening the time the cook will stand shivering.
*Finally, there is the question of why anyone goes to the trouble of cooking outside on a winter's night. There are several answers. One deals with the primal, centuries-old appeal of a warm fire on a dark night. Another with the feeling of escape, however temporary, from the confines of indoor life. But the main reason I grill during the dark season is the flavor of the food. When I see a fillet of tuna, a lamb chop or a slab of eggplant, I hear it calling out to me, begging to be grilled.
And so, last Saturday night, when the temperature was in the teens and the wind was biting, I stood out in the backyard clad in an overcoat, tending my cooker. The fire was perfect. After quickly cooking a shark fillet, I cleaned off the grill and tossed on a slab of pork ribs. The ribs cooked most of the night. I took them off the fire about 10 o'clock. When I went outside to fetch them, the air was cold. But it smelled like summer. HC