We the People of the Grill, A Constitution for the Backyard Cookout
No amount of “don’t talk politics at dinner” will prevent backyard barbecues from being the most political event in a southerner’s social routine. Forget the politicos in the statehouse, the real elections in South Carolina decide who gets to use the grill in the backyard.
Although not every person at a cookout wants to be the chef de jour, a few representative attendees play a critical role in electing the Commander in Chief of the Grill. Don’t be fooled, the need for a democratic decision on who gets to grill is real. Everyone has suffered through a host who burns burgers into hockey pucks and still has the audacity to call them medium-rare.
Therefore, it’s necessary to establish a social contract to determine who at the cookout is best fit to lead the dinner party in preparing the meat. Renowned South Carolina pitmaster of Big JT’s BBQ, J.T. Handy, says he and his wife bicker about grill politics regularly before arriving at a friend’s cookout. Handy has a habit of dominating the grill even when he’s not the host.
Handy believes that in every backyard barbeque there is a harrowing Clint Eastwood-cowboy standoff. With a backdrop of potato salad and coleslaw still wrapped in cellophane, two potential cooks will inevitably stare each other down. Each one waiting for the other to make the first twitch towards the prize resting equidistant between them. In the cowboy movies that prize is a gun, in the backyard version, a set of barbeque tongs. The faster draw handles the grill for the night.
“If I have the tongs or a spatula in my hand, or you kind of let me get a hold of them, it's my show now,” laughs Handy. “Whoever has got the tank is the commander of the field.”
Gary Taylor with All Smoked Up BBQ out of Lexington uses a subtle approach to commandeering the grill at backyard barbecues. When he notices a friend skip a step, he might quietly remind the cook that he just won a competition by adding a little white pepper and hopes the cook takes the hint. But the over-the-shoulder grilling technique doesn’t always yield perfect results and sometimes Taylor suffers through some unfortunate mistakes.
“If you invite me to your house I am going to eat your barbeque, I’m going to eat your chicken, your barbecue pork, your kielbasa sausage or whatever you have on the grill,” says Taylor. “I didn’t say I’d eat a lot of it, or that I’d like it, but I’ll eat it.”
There is a fine line between being a gracious guest who suffers through bad barbecue and one who stands up for their rights. After all, the only thing worse than having no barbecue at all is having a large quantity of very bad barbecue.
Both methods of grill governance present losing options. No one intentionally wants to irk a host, but the fear of hunger makes one resort to unprideful behaviors. Handy’s domineering shoot-from-the-hip approach to barbeque removes the collaborative process of cooking. He acknowledged the flaws in the domineering style and recognizes that it has cost him in the past.
Usually at competitions he keeps his barbeque rig under lock and key to avoid the influence of other cooks. But Handy said he’d be remiss if he didn't mention the time he absolutely needed to sleep after staying up all night at a barbecue competition. Unwittingly and under duress, he gave his wife, Bobbi, specific directions on how to keep the grill at exactly 249.5° while he slept. During Handy's nap, his nightmare came true; his wife let the temperature drop well below the preferred range and he was sure that she'd lost him the competition. Handy didn’t even go to the award ceremony.
But one person's nightmare often becomes another person’s dream. Bobbi's low-temperature barbecue earned him first place. Handy doesn't remember the size of the prize money because he never got to see it before it went into his wife’s pocketbook.
Taylor's finesse in suggesting grill tips has equally dreadful downfalls. In extreme circumstances, no amount of advice will save you from the inedible. In those cases, you flirt with the cardinal sin of leaving a backyard barbecue hungry.
For the new kids entering the barbecue block, Taylor and Handy offer some advice. Taylor takes an academic approach to cooking. He says you can never do too much research about barbecue and points specifically to finding a perfect temperature (240–270°) for the grill.
Handy says the amateur barbecuer should move past big grocery stores when selecting meat and find local farmers who can sell them whole hogs or specific cuts of meat. He likes Winningham Meats near Lebanon and the folks at Burbage Meats in Ravanel.
However, the most import skill is harnessing a passion for barbeque. The grill should be the focal point of relaxation around which family and friends gather to soak in the smells emanating from the rig. There isn’t really a need for politics once everyone is full.
But until then it is always good to have a barbeque Bill of Rights just in case:
We the People in Order, to form a most perfect Union in the backyard, establish Justice through the traditional smoking of Meat. In doing so we promote the general welfare of feeding all Equally from the grill and secure the blessings of Liberty by conforming to the Constitution of who gets to use the barbeque tongs.
Give me Liberty or give me a grill.