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Gimme a smile: Playing with fire

Posted: June 2, 2013 - 12:00am

School’s out, so summer is officially here. We all know what that means. Barbecue season is upon us.

I’ve been heard to say that outdoor cooking is a guy thing, but I was branded a female chauvinist, so I can’t use that line anymore (regardless of the truth that lies therein). Still, I ask you — take a look at the Fathers’ Day ads in the newspaper. They feature happy dads wearing manly aprons, posing in front of state-of-the-art grills. Not a waffle iron in sight. I rest my case.

Maybe I should just fess up. Outdoor cooking is not my thing. I am pretty good at making a fire, under certain optimum conditions. Give me a bright sunny day, a quantity of dry brush and a magnifying glass, and I’m your woman. My local claim to fame is the fact that I taught all the elementary age boys on our street how to pinpoint the power of the sun through the lens of a magnifying glass. I taught my kid how to play with fire — what’s wrong with this picture? The boys started out with smoldering wood chips, and worked their way up to bona fide bonfires at the end of our driveway (we made them relocate from the middle of the street, in case a stray car might happen along). They even made s’mores on a magnifying glass fire one sunny afternoon a year or so ago. Now when the sun comes out, the boys rub their hands in anticipation, not of riding their bikes or playing capture the flag, but because, “It’s a good day for burning today.”

It’s funny that I should be the instigator of such fire play, since I used to be such a coward about fire. In high school chemistry class I always made my lab partner light the Bunsen burner, because I was afraid of matches. With good reason — matches are far more unpredictable than magnifying glasses. Matches have bobble heads that can pop off during striking, sending fire flying across the room. Plus, I can never light everything I need to light before the match burns down and singes my fingers, causing me to sling it away, thus sending fire flying across the room. Who needs matches, anyway? It is hard to ignite with a magnifying glass inside a chemistry classroom, however.

Hmm, I wonder why I didn’t use a lighter for that Bunsen burner. Maybe because lighters always seemed to go with smokers — why else would you carry a lighter around in your pocket? I guess my chemistry teacher didn’t smoke, because we only used matches in her class. I do remember my math teacher smoking in school — he’d be puffing away in his office adjacent to the classroom, zing through the door in his rolling desk chair, and start quizzing us on sines and cosines with the last breath of cigarette smoke swirling around him. I probably could have borrowed a lighter off of him.

I’ve actually used a lighter maybe once or twice in my life. Yes, I’m scared of them too. I think it’s the suddenness of the flame — it pops up out of nowhere, but never on the first try. So you try again, and again, and you never really know which time you’re going to end up with fire on the end of this plastic cylinder. My preference is still the humble magnifying glass.

Once I’ve finally got a fire going, my next desire is to hold something over it on a stick to cook. It could be hotdogs, marshmallows or spam — doesn’t really matter. As long as it can be skewered on a stick and suspended over an open flame, it counts as dinner to me. Here’s where I fail on the barbecuing test. I’m not at all interested in laying a grate over the flames and piling bits of meat on top of it to grill. Achieving perfect sear marks has never been a life ambition for me. Poke a stick through it and I can roast it, but I’ll leave the basting and grilling up to the guys. It’s a guy thing. There, I said it.

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother and aspiring author. She likes to look at the bright side of life.

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