The burner controls are just for show

Posted: Sunday, June 09, 2002

I can't believe I charred the ribs, again. I have been cooking all manner of carrion for many years with a high incidence of success, but I have to say, the new BBQ is giving me a lot of trouble. It's not really new, I think it's been around for more than a year, but I finally got the nerve to start using it recently.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at

At this latest incineration, I realized in frustration that I would easily do a better job cooking over the burn barrel. The barrel has heat below (your basic honest, straightforward, visible flames), a grate, and the open sky above. The BBQ has a gas tank, three heat controls, a cover and a whole network of metal bars hiding the flames.

My husband recently changed out the flavor bars while doing the routine annual maintenance on the grill. I have no idea what flavor bars are or what they do. I admit that I have for years been throwing away upon receipt, right along with the boat catalogs, a regular newsletter about backyard grilling. There was probably a whole issue dedicated to flavor bars. Why would anyone, I asked every time I tossed an issue, need instruction, tips or, for crying out loud, recipes for super heating, smoking and sizzling whatever is for dinner? What is more basic than cooking meat over a fire? Aren't we all born knowing how to do it? I always thought so, but this new, improved super campfire is alien technology. It's simple enough to light, but then you have to coordinate the three heating controls and intuitively know when to open, poke and/or turn and close. It's more complicated than a road grader. And capriciously goes berserk with the flames, torching your dinner.

My sister has electricity in her home now, but still makes toast in the broiler. To everyone's horror, she happily insists on making toast to go with breakfast at her house. She runs through a couple loaves of bread while she burns two out of three broiler loads. I mean, really burns. Her guests extinguish the flames, beg her to stop, swear they don't want toast, but she does it again and again. I think she misses woodstove cooking. Visit her at lunch, it's safer. I am pretty sure my point, before all the smoke alarms went off, was you just can't take cooking flames for granted, especially when you can't personally keep an eye on them.

Have you noticed that all the serious modern appliances come with a video? Washing machines, cash registers, cars. I wondered if I should have watched the grill's video. Maybe Billy Bob Childs could have shown me how easy it is to grill perfect ribs, chicken or whatever every time with a few simple tips that anyone can learn. I sacked the kitchen, but couldn't find a video for the BBQ grill. I thought I could get some clues from the cooking gadget catalogs I haven't tossed yet, and read all about the attachments for making seven-course meals on the backyard grill, the PTO for churning butter and the under-the-hood drying rack for the fresh pasta. It was humbling and not helpful.

How hard can it be? You got the gas, the flames, your standard flavor bars, the grill and a reasonable intellect. I'm not going to let this thing get the best of me. I am not going to break down and ask my husband to teach me to cook on an outdoor grill. I've been watching him and I think I see some patterns. An important tool for BBQ success seems to be the lawn chair next to the grill with the newspaper on it. Staying nearby while the meat is cooking rather than leaving it on its own makes sense. It's when I turn my back that things go bad. Like when I try to tend the rest of the meal on the indoor stove. What a fool. If I'm right there, I won't have to run to put out the fire. The trio of burner controls are just for show, it turns out. You turn them on when you start, off when you're done. Then there's the spray bottle always handy. You see smoke suddenly billowing out of the grill, you jump up and say, "whoa!" Then you open the lid, hose down the flames, turn the meat and close it up again. Go to the next page of the newspaper. Perfect ribs, every time.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at

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