Short of a good old fashioned barn raising, there's nothing that brings friends together better than a summer barbecue.
Our family grilling tradition goes back to my great uncle, who was a cattle herder in Argentina. Cattle ranchers employed him to herd their beasts across the Argentinean pampas (plains) to the coastal markets, where they were sold and shipped to Europe in cattle boats. At night, during these rugged treks, the herders and gauchos would set up camp, build a big fire and roast a whole cow over the open pit. (After all, when you're moving entire herds, who's counting.) A traditional fiery sauce was concocted and basted on the meat as it turned. The seared meat was then carved directly from the spit.
My grandfather continued the tradition by grilling rib-eye steaks over the coals of the furnace under the men's clothing store he owned in Montreal. Friends and customers gathered around as he sliced off strips from the cooked outer portions and served them on pieces of French bread. Four years ago, my 78-year-old patio daddy-o re-christened himself "Gaucho Jack" and began bottling the original sauce*. Now he travels across the country grillin' and shillin'. As you can tell, grilling is in my blood.
Of course the times they are a changin'! Most charcoal comes in the form of uniformly pressed, self-lighting briquettes that bear a closer resemblance to oversized rabbit pellets than a source of fuel. What's more, propane grills have rendered the charcoal grill almost obsolete. And any gathering of friends usually includes a cross-section of dietary quirks that range from full-on carnivores to the vegetarian camp - which is further broken down into strict vegetarians and "vegetarians" who eat fish, chicken and occasionally roast beef. Go figure. Fortunately, none of this "progress" has dampened my enthusiasm for barbecuing, or diminished the gratification I derive from regressing to the caveman ways of building a fire from scratch.
In my humble opinion (and that of my forefathers), real hardwood charcoal provides the best grill flavor. This may stem from my difficulty in conceptualizing how the petrified lava rocks of a propane grill can duplicate the smoky flavor of natural wood. "Real" hardwood charcoal is made from chunks of trees that have been burned slowly. Briquettes are the hot dogs of the charcoal business. You're not sure what leftovers they contain and you really don't want to know. My father doesn't sanction briquettes because he theorizes that the glue-like components that bind them emit undesirable fumes that are absorbed by the food. Most grocery stores carry several varieties of briquettes but usually only one brand of hardwood charcoal, which is commonly packaged as "mesquite" - a name it borrows from the flavorful type of wood from which it's made.
Once you've gone to the trouble of tracking down natural hardwood, avoid contaminating it with starter fluids. Most make food taste like a gas rag (not to mention being one of the worst air polluters known to man).
Start your coals with crumpled newspaper and a few dry branches, or the very politically correct, and relatively foolproof, starter chimney. If you're cooking for a crowd, hedge your bet by lighting the coals 30 minutes in advance. Extra charcoal may be required to keep the fire burning, but it beats fighting to get the coals lit while your famished dinner guests cheer you on.
After you've succeeded in building a fire to cook your kill du jour, don't fail to take full advantage of your labors by using the glowing embers to liven up some veggies. Common vegetables, such as bell peppers, Japanese eggplant, asparagus and mushrooms, are magically transformed into gourmet fare with a quick brushstroke of olive oil and the flavor of the grill. And roasting corn is as simple as placing the unhusked ears on the grill directly over the hot coals and turning a quarter turn every two minutes until the husk is completely blackened. The high heat caramelizes the kernels, imparting a sweeter, more complex flavor that can't be matched by boiling corn. The flavors are so textural that after a few outings, you may decide to eliminate the meat altogether.
Best of all, the learning curve is almost as flat as the Argentinean plains themselves. So the next time you're herding cattle or simply celebrating the rites of summer, fire up the "Q," and uncork a few bottles of the good stuff. The most difficulty you'll encounter will be in deciding what vintage to serve with the marshmallows.
* Gaucho Jack's Argentinean Grilling Sauce is available by writing to P.O. box 4356, Burlington, VT 05406 (Tell him his son with the shaggy hair and the untucked shirts sent you).