Our guests again today are Albert Burneko of Deadspin, host of the popular Foodspin column and Spilly, food humorist at SB Nation. Honored to have them both over for a chat about the kickoff to the summer barbecue season after we had so much fun talking about Super Bowl food.
(We made small talk about steaks, Pittsburgh rare, broken ovens and other nonsense before jumping in.)
SS: So we briefly talked about steaks, but really what this Memorial Day post should be about is the kickoff of barbecue and grilling season.
Do you guys grill or barbecue? Do you get caught up in the semantics of what you call grilling or barbecue?
AB: I grill/barbecue/whatever constantly when the weather permits it (and sometimes when it doesn’t), and no, I don’t pay much attention to whether I am using the word “barbecue” according to how it was first used five bazillion years ago when some Cro-Magnon first said “barbecue” and the other Cro-Magnons looked at him askance and were all, “NUH-UH THAT IS GRILLED TOR DON’T YOU EVEN KNOW WHAT BARBECUE IS DOUCHE?” If it is cooked over (or, OK, near to but not directly over) a relatively low heat and flavored with sauces and/or spices typically associated with barbecue, I call it barbecue. Or I call it grilled. Or I just friggin’ eat it because that is what food is for.
I mean, care about the semantics if you want (although I do reserve the right to roll my eyes and/or make dismissive wanking motions at you). I understand that there’s value in preserving the precise meanings of words. It’s just, Christ, the barbecue dorks are insufferable. If you’re popping out from behind bushes, brandishing your snottiest “Well, actually…” every time somebody dares to use the dread b-word to describe anything not cooked over a dug-out pit full of firewood, it’s possible you’re maybe missing the main point of the whole cooking-and-eating-things enterprise just a tad.
SS: I was hoping you’d take that stance because I too get crazy when people get all up in arms about the usage of the word barbecue. Your grandparents didn’t have people over for grilling, your parents didn’t have people over for grilling, and you don’t spend the summer racing from grilling party to grilling party. This is America and we go to barbecues with plastic red-and-white tablecloths, paper plates that fall apart after the beans have been sitting on them for too long, rolls of paper towels for napkins and Coleman coolers full of ice.
Spilly: I don’t have nearly the barbecue experience I would like to have at this point; this is usually due to silly things like ‘landlords’ in the city. So I’ve never been able to use a proper barbeque pit or smoker like many people. I do enjoy the progression of barbecue from college student hidden contraband hibachi grill to the first charcoal grill to one that lasts more than six weeks before rusting apart. I prefer charcoal to gas myself – not just because of legitimate flavor reasons, but that it’s the only real time I’m allowed to start fires without being arrested, and I don’t like a little button taking that joy away from me.
As far as barbecuing vs. grilling, I honestly don’t care. I know people do. This is the internet, though, where no one is allowed to be ambivalent on any topic, especially pedantic issues of nomenclature. I mean, we’ve had internet arguments for days over how to say ‘GIF’
SS: I’m a charcoal person myself too, Spilly, which has caused more problems in my marriage than probably any other topic aside of perhaps how the closet is arranged.
I think the preference is all in how you were raised. My parents always grilled over charcoal, he came from a family of gas grillers. I was taught smoke and heat mattered and you slaved to get the right shade of gray ashes, he was taught there is nothing better than being able to grill every night as long as you remembered to fill up the tank.
I won out on our grill ownership debate and we have a charcoal grill. Since I grew up with charcoal, learned how to stack, make different heat zones, how much air to allow in the kettle, I can get a good grill going in no time. He’s still learning the basics and often gets frustrated with the fire. We’re a pretty even-keeled couple, partnership and gender politics rarely pop up in our home, but the grill brings out some hard feelings when I have to do some quick fixes to his fires when they’re not going… so… hot.
Spilly: I haven’t been able to master lump charcoal with any sort of regularity. I see the advantages, but I rarely need them.
AB: I’m passionately in love with lump charcoal and never really use anything else. It crackles like a campfire! You can quote me on that!
Spilly: I never can get the damn things to heat evenly. Agh.
AB: Yes. You’re right. It doesn’t heat as evenly as briquettes, and that can be annoying. I like it because it heats up so much more quickly and burns so much hotter than briquettes, and, seriously, it crackles! I love the crackling. God, I am a fucking infant.
SS: We can get to main items later, what what do you think are the most underrated sides?
AB: This might seem an odd choice, only because it’s already everyone’s favorite thing ever, but the most underrated side is still corn on the cob, because it’s scientifically impossible to rate it correctly. Sort of like how infinity’s already infinity, but it’s still not as big as infinity + 1. That’s probably not true. I have no way of knowing. Point is, corn’s the best.
SS: Corn is a top three for me, but I need to have a knife around to cut off the kernels. This is not negotiable. Beans that are actually cooked in a skillet over the grill don’t get enough love in my book.
AB: Wait, whoa, you just melted my brain. You don’t, like, just pick up the whole thing and chow down on it like a gross pig and get chewed-up corn all over your face? Because, holy cow, I’m sure I can’t think of five more enjoyable things to do.
SS: Always cut it off with a steak knife. That way the corn can properly meld with meat juices and butter on the plate. Also it’s less likely to get stuck in your teeth.
Spilly: Obviously, like everyone else, I do dogs/burgers/chicken/steak. I tend to enjoy dry barbecue over wet – though I will gladly eat both. I’m actually not a corn cob person – I prefer it taken off the cob because I hate the 45 minutes with a toothpick afterwards. Sure, there’s the “I get to be a boorish oaf” aspect of eating it, but trying to wedge that last cob strand out of a back molar before giving up and flossing is kind of a downer.
SS: I’m a wet and dry fan, as long as the sauce is something a little more than just a bottle of ketchup.
Ice cream sandwiches and popsicles, pie, or cake for barbecues?
AB: Ice cream sandwiches and popsicles, of course! Pie is OK if there are no children present. Cake–I mean, cake at a barbecue… that’s… that ain’t legal.
SS: Children and pie don’t mix?
AB: Sure they do, but children work even better as an excuse to have ten million ice cream sandwiches laying around.
SS: Fair point. The best part about a popsicles is that you can eat about a hundred of them and suffer few side effects. Very few foods you can say that about.
Spilly: You really have to go with ice cream sandwiches / popsicles. It’s summer. You have all year for pies/cakes. Don’t get me wrong, I love both of those things, but frozen dessert is really the winner here.
SS: Most overrated barbecue food? Beer can chicken, perhaps?
AB: That’s gotta be it, right? I mean, the beer does nothing. Nothing. Apart from the fact that it plainly, manifestly doesn’t flavor the chicken in any way, I mean, it doesn’t even work in concept. It does nothing!
Other than that, I love pretty much anything that comes off a grill. I’m not the most discerning eater.
SS: It’s okay to be a little picky. I hide it well, but I’m always a touch disappointed when I go to a BBQ and see a giant bag of frozen Costco patties sitting next to the fire.
Spilly: It depends, I think. Is it a tailgate barbecue? I think patties can work for something like that. It’s not the BEST, but considering conditions and space limitations, it’s allowable. This also goes for if you have one of those massive block party meals that you basically have to go assembly line style for.
Other than that, yeah, it’s a cop-out. What annoys me are the ‘Kobe-beef’ people who think they actually bought Kobe beef.
SS: That’s fair about the block party/tailgate conditions. They’re just so thin they go from frozen to oversized hockey pucks in about two minutes flat. Some local butchers here in LA, Lindy & Grundy, do a 80% ground beef, 20% ground bacon mix that makes one of the best burgers around and is remarkably reasonably priced.
So we got a couple of questions from the readers for our discussion about grilling vegetables. I actually grill vegetable kabobs pretty frequently during the peak farmer’s market summer season. Yellow squash, zucchini, sliced onions, Japanese eggplant, red and green bell peppers, brushed with a small amount of olive oil, whatever fresh herbs I have on hand, cracked pepper, some lemon juice and a touch of soy sauce. It’s especially good if you take these grilled veggies and put them with warm pasta or chill for a pasta salad the next day. One reader brought ending up with “raw and burnt” vegetables, and I’ve always found the key is making sure you use medium-low heat for a longer period of time and cutting all the vegetables to be a uniform size. (Although when I grill brussel sprouts, I steam them a bit first. Obviously leave off the pork lardons if you’re a vegetarian.)
What about you guys?
Spilly: I enjoy grilled vegetables, but other than corn or the occasional kebab, we don’t do it very often here. My grill isn’t the biggest (due to landlord restrictions) so I tend to devote it to meat during a barbecue and handle vegetables some other way. Unless veggie patties count. I’m going to go ahead and count it.
AB: Sarah, you said everything I’d have to say about grilling vegetables. Oh! If you can avoid it, don’t grill your vegetables after the meat, because they tend to take a long time, and everybody’s going to give in to temptation and eat the meat while they wait, and then the vegetables will seem really unexciting once everyone’s stomachs are full of meat, and then you will have a lot of sad grilled vegetables and you will feel guilty, like, oh great job you gross pig, you crammed yourself full of meat and now you’re just gonna sock those vegetables into a Tupperware and avoid making eye-contact with them for the next week until you can credibly assume they’ve gone bad and dump them down the garbage disposal. God, you make me fucking sick. Don’t do that to yourself. Cook the vegetables first.
SS: It’s funny Albert, I always grill hot dogs (veggies on the other side of the grill) first, because I consider them the “appetizer” of the BBQ day. If I fill up on a burger early, no way am I going to eat anything else.
What’s an essential food at a barbecue?
AB: I’d say the most essential thing at any barbecue is beer. I think I could stand next to a hot charcoal fire and flip food on top of it for a month if I could be assured of a cold bottle or can or cheap red plastic cup of beer to absentmindedly sip from the entire time. Also, if you keep a pack of cheap non-fancy hot dogs in your fridge, you absolutely will go Oh shit, I have hot dogs! and grill them after you’ve taken everything else off the grill but the charcoal is still hot. And then they will wind up tasting at least as good as everything else, even though they are just tubes of pulverized offal and ought by all rights to taste like absolute shit. Which is to say, keep some hot dogs in your fridge.
Spilly: What is essential at each barbecue? Variety. Burgers and dogs are okay, but I think too many people start and stop there. There’s a ton of animal flesh out there that needs charring. Go forth and incinerate!
SS: And my required food? Watermelon. You have to have watermelon at a barbecue.
Thanks again to Albert Burneko of Deadspin’s Foodspin and SB Nation Food Humorist Spilly for joining me. Can’t believe we didn’t even get to discussing seafood on the grill. Huge oversight in our limited amount of time. We’ll have to do this again next year when we all have smokers and my dream, a proper rotisserie over my grill. You can find the complete collection of Football Foodie recipes on KSK here and a special section of grilling recipes on my personal site here.