January, 2002, Ohio
The editors at Bon Appetit should be finishing up their summer grilling issue right about now. It will come out in August. Buried among the advertisements for lunch meat and recipes for three-minute meals centered around canned goods, a massive photo spread depicting a plush suburban backyard will introduce the menu and the accompanying four inches of article. In the picture, beautiful plates of perfect steaks sliced to reveal pink and ruby interiors, salads, rolls, assorted colorful enticing sides will perch on a broad buffet table standing in an impossibly verdant carpet of grass. Slender, attractive people of all races will be draped over handsome lawn furniture, ladies wearing breezy summer skirts and sun hats, guys sporting casual collared shirts and sandals. Their adorable children will be sitting on their laps, rolling around with clean, well-groomed puppies at their feet, smiling as they pause to spoon up another chomp of mac-'n'-cheese. In the center of the frame, a monstrous grill will glaze the scene with warm wisps of cozy smoke. What I describe sounds more like a shoot Gourmet would have done, but I'm sure Bon Appetit will pull out all the stops it can. After all, the spread will be designed to get readers stoked on throwing their own summer grilling parties. Unfortunately, those, with their leathery chicken breasts, lumpy mashed potatoes, misshapen pies, normal-sized adults, bratty, sunburned kids, and greedy, flea-ridden mutts, won't measure up.
For me, however, summer isn't the time I really like to cook out. I don't buy into the convention that warm weather and clear skies should always encourage fire-building. It doesn't make tons of sense to create heat outdoors on a truly hot day unless you're abandoned in the wilds of rural Idaho without your trusty Vulcan range. Furthermore, I actually tend to crave the foods associated with cookouts during winter.
There's a reason for that. I went to college in northern Ohio, not far from Cleveland, just ten miles from the shores of Lake Erie. In case you don't know, the weather fluctuations in that part of the country are brutal. Every year, when I would arrive at school in late August, temperatures often approached 100 degrees, and the air was humid, thick, hanging around your neck like a rope. It was like Kentucky, except there were more trees to hid beneath there. When it's so hot, you sweat through your clothes within five minutes of leaving the house, cookouts lose their luster -- until the sun goes down.
The most memorable cookouts from that period of my life didn't happen at the end of summer, but instead months later, in the middle of winter. At Oberlin, we had something called Winter Term. It lasted the whole month of January. For three out of the four years, you used that time to fake an internship or cobble together a half-assed pet project. By the time senior year rolled around, I had done this three times. That January, I didn't do anything except freeze, sleep, read, watch mysteriously free cable on a crummy TV set, drink, and cook out. Winters in northern Ohio are forbidding. There would be a foot of snow on the ground and my friends and I would think nothing of putting on coats and firing up the bright orange smoker I'd salvaged from the basement of my parents' house. That year, I was still in the early stages of fighting off a long, persistent case of vegetarianism. I usually cooked a mako shark steak for myself. You could taste the mercury through whatever soy-garlic marinade I threw together. I might as well have barbecued a thermometer. When car-less, we often walked fifteen minutes to a lonely IGA for supplies. That month, I honed a cole slaw recipe that hinged heavily on lip-numbing quantities of Srirachi sauce. The dressing could never decide if it wanted the shredded cabbage, carrots, and peppers it adorned to skew towards the mayo or vinegar sides of the cole slaw spectrum. I always added both, along with olive oil, in loose measurements, and the final product invariably split the difference. My process was simple. I would pull all the condiments and potential flavoring agents out of the fridge and cupboard and start adding dabs of this and that: in addition to Srirachi, Dijon mustard, sprinkles of sugar, salt, pepper, celery seed, fistfuls of scallions, and herbs like dill and parsley. After the meal, we'd leave the dirty plates and scraps outside and head in to watch Iron Chef or something. We'd forget about the mess and, by the time we remembered, the leftover mashed potatoes would be frozen clods the color of dirty snow.