Originally published in U Magazine, June 2008
Can you get the stench of burning flesh in the air? It’s that time of year again. Any day now, invitations to friends’ barbecues will come flooding in.
No one invites you to dinner during this period, no one says they’re having a few nibbles and cocktails in their garden, or in their 4’ X 3’ yard, in summer, you only ever get invites to barbecues. And because there’s been a week of sunshine, they’ve been out in force early this year. Apparently, it’s against the law to burn garden rubbish, but boy are you permitted to turn a small corner of your rear end into a funeral pyre for chunks of indeterminable animal offcuts. I’m sure many of you are now wearing tops that were out on the washing line when one of your neighbours threw one of these acts of wilful fire-raising; smells yummy, your t-shirt, doesn’t it? I bet you were delighted when you first noticed what was happening. First you catch the scent of hot charcoal, then your throat and eyes begin to sting and choke, and finally you see the black plume snaking over the fence, the universally understood smoke signal meaning, “Man. Cooking. Now.”
I won’t be accepting any of these forthcoming invitations. To attend a barbecue is to play Russian Roulette with your innards. All over the world, restaurants get closed down due to small secretions of unspecified matter inside ovens, incorrectly stored edibles in refridgerators and hygiene standards only marginally better than those of an A&E ward. There are no such standards or inspections at private barbecues. The grill itself could be entirely made of rust and been used by countless pigeons and magpies as target practice; the meat could have been haphazardly piled in a hot, fly-ridden kitchen for days on end; and now, it’s being cooked by someone whose hands have been handling charcoal, perspiring armpits and gone through a regular licking between flips. The variety of potential cancers available from the consumption of simultaneously over-and-undercooked meat are greater than Heinz’s product variety; you are, like the chef, playing with fire.
The word ‘barbecue’ scrawled on an invite is, of course, entirely euphemistic and arbitrary (although, it’s bound to be written ‘bar-b-que’ or ‘BBQ’ for added wackiness). It actually means ‘reason for men to be drinking and turning pink in hot weather’, and is in no way suggestive of any form of gastronomy. And, let’s be honest, if there’s one thing a man can disorganise better than a piss up in a brewery, it’s a palatable meal at a piss up. Of course, women are invited too, and not just to sip elegant Martini spritzers and make the garden look prettier; there are nibbles to be decanted into bowls, salad and vegetables to prepare, potatoes to roast, drinks to fix and serve, paper plates and plastic cutlery to arrange, conversations to start – and an abattoir’s worth of frozen meat hunks to ferry out to the Fred Flinstone of suburbia who’s just discovered fire. Playing Wilma at these events is utterly thankless.
If anyone in the world is happier than a pig up to its knees in shit, it’s a man at a barbecue up to his elbows in pig. You daren’t go near this highly territorial entity while he’s at work either; he’s barricaded himself in with beer bottles, he’s wearing his, “artist at work” apron, he’s making a smokescreen out of charring hog in order to segregate the expectant consumers from the exalted maestro. There he is, flipping this darkening, flattened matter, which started life as a functioning piece of cow and is now patty in his hands, from one side to the other, drooling with smog-obscured concentration. He’s never bothered to learn how to boil an egg or sweat an onion in his own kitchen but, since he first saw Neighbours in 1986, he’s out here every summer, in the searing, blistering sunshine, in his shorts, sandals and golf weekend baseball cap, being all your favourite, grumpy celebrity chefs rolled in to one big sweaty bap of self-congratulation.
Then the moment of truth arrives when you, privileged guest, are offered a taste of his wares; and it reminds you, in a rush of cold sweat and pre-ingratitude panic, that he’s no Gordon Ramsay, he’s just Gordon Bennett. Your paper plate is bowing under the weight of a pile of molten, smouldering lumps of something you can only hazard a guess at, while all around you, drunken people are committing them to their gaping mouths as they chat and giggle. Gathering your courage, some flavour-enhancing spicy sauce and uttering a silent prayer, you put the morsel to your lips and lunge into a bite. A pause, a crunch, a splintered tooth, and a second, closer look at what you’re attempting to chew; on the outside, it’s blacker and crispier than a clumsy cyclist’s kneecap, while on the inside, it’s pinker and softer than Barbie’s sofa cushions. You gulp it down with a slug of cold beer, hoping the alcohol and ketchup will somehow nuke any cancerous bacteria that may now be gnawing and guffawing at your stomach. You do your utmost to find a discreet corner of the patio in which to abandon your soggy, dusty plate and leave its contents to the gathering flies, while you sneak off to find some of the salad; not because of its nutritional value, just because it might help take the taste away.
Later, when the last of the stragglers have finally staggered off into the gloaming, there will be our chest-beating superman strutting through the haze, fresh from the fight, glowing with pride, as if he’d wrestled a bucking bull and a wild boar to the ground himself and stripped them of their flesh with his bare hands this very morning; after all, not only was this day a bona fide, bone-fiddling idea of his own, he provided the sustenance, the meat that is now in the stomachs and on the bones of his satisfied guests. He flops on to a deckchair, emitting a heroic sigh of self-congratulation, sweeping the back of his charcoal-blackened hand across his glistening brow, and slaking his manly thirst with a long-anticipated cold, foaming lager, like he’s just trekked across the Sahara without a camel after a fight to the death with Omar Sharif. He smiles at his beloved, his heart swelling in his chest in anticipation of her unending gratitude for removing the burden of slaving over a hot grill on this wonderful social occasion, assured within himself that she has had the afternoon and evening of her life. She has a beckoning look in her eye and huge black polythene sack in her hand.
“Come on,” barks the voice of his exhausted love. “We’ve a lot of tidying to do before bed.”
“WHAT?” comes the incredulous voice of garden gastronomy. “But I’ve been cooking all day..!”