Eating. barbecue. (also known as setting food on fire).
I know it is spring, says Laurie Colwin, not by the first robin but by the first barbecue across the street on the seminary lawn [Colwin lived across the street from a theological seminary]. That first whiff of lighter fluid and smoke is my herald, and led one of my friends to ask: "What is it about Episcopalians, do you think? Is it in their genes to barbecue?" I am not sure if my neighbors are Episcopalians or not, but I know spring is here because when I open my windows I can smell smoke and grilling meats wafting up from somewhere in the neighborhood. Actually in Seattle the start of the barbecue season is marked by the Memorial Day weekend, as summer nears and you get a few days of sunny weather in a row, and the temperature makes a feeble break past the 70º mark and hovers there, indecisively, for another day or two before plummeting down again.
Ah, the barbecue, that grand old American tradition of setting a pile of charcoal briquettes on fire with a few artfully crumpled pieces of newspaper and a long match that kept your fingers at a safe distance from the flames (those long matches came in handy when lighting the Halloween pumpkins months later). Lighter fluid was unecessary, a barbaric habit. Actually for many years we had a big gas-fired barbecue on the back porch, fed by huge tanks of propane. Friends would come over to watch the SeaFair festivities (early August), as we had a good view of the lake; the children would swim in the pool or play basketball or lay on the grass and watch the Blue Angels fly overhead, low enough to set off the occasional car alarm, so loud the dog hid in the basement. There would be chicken wings and thighs marinated in soy sauce with scallions and garlic or rosemary and wine, hot dogs and hamburgers and vegetable kebabs and long slabs of salmon. Afterwards there would be ice cream and watermelon and bowls of cherries and strawberries and coolers full of root beer and beer beer and goodness knows what else.
All that is gone now, the house and the gas-fired barbecue that sat in the sun, gathering dust and pools of rainwater and dogwood petals on its black plastic cover. Our family is scattered on opposite sides of the ocean. Now I find myself in a friend's backyard, on Memorial Day or the 4th of July or Labor Day or just because they felt like a barbecue, felt like gathering together a large but tightly knit family for chicken wings drizzled with honey and steaks marinated in whiskey and hot sausages and giant prawns and scallops, all grilled over charcoal - no wussy gas grills here - either on the grill, or on long metal skewers held directly over the hot coals, what they call Hong-Kong-style barbecue (why I don't know). Then there will be s'mores, sticky-sweet, hot and melting, because it just wouldn't be a barbecue without s'mores. (Definitely a tradition I can live with).
But of course, the weather being fickle on a Sunday evening in May, it is gray and cold and raining just a little as we stand on the terrace. The lake spreads before us, the same flinty gray as the sky; behind us the house seems full of light and people and acres of polished marble. I stick a hot dog on my pronged fork, hold it over the coals, watch the skin blister and blacken before taking it out and sliding it into a waiting bun. And then into my waiting mouth. The first hot dog of the season, the first barbecue. Later I will set my first marshmallows on fire, and then start over with fresh ones, this time just toasting them a deep gold, the insides molten white. The first toasted marshmallows of the year, they tell me that summer is almost here.
Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. HarperPerennial, 1993. p. 103.