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CHRIS ERSKINE

When Men Were Men, and Grills Were Grills

July 15, 1998|CHRIS ERSKINE

I'm sitting in the backyard at dusk, nursing a beer and designing my new barbecue, the one with 44,000 BTUs of heat and a computer keyboard, a digital grill for the digital age, fully networked to my buddy's grill down the block, with tons of RAM and maybe a video card. And eight heavy-duty cooking grates.

"What're you doing, Dad?" says the little girl, bursting out the back door.

She stumbles out the door like one of the three tenors, her belly full of Kool-Aid and M&M's, ready to seize this summer night.

"Nothing," I say.

"Really, Dad, what are you doing?" she asks, sitting too close to me on the porch step.

She watches me sketch my new grill on a piece of scrap paper. It looks like the kind of grill Picasso might design, all hard angles and grotesque parts. The lid looks like a car wreck. The control knobs look like breasts.

"Nice," she says.

"You think so?" I ask.

"Yeah," she says. "Very nice."

It is one of the little red-haired girl's strongest qualities, her ability to find beauty where there is none. She has never seen an ugly dog or a part of town she doesn't like. As long as I can remember, she has been this way, big-hearted and naive. Gets it from her grandmother.

"I'm glad you like it," I say, adding a work surface and condiment tray to what promises to be the ultimate grill, the next generation in backyard barbecues.

Next to us, my old grill is smoking away. For a decade, it has put in long evenings like this in the backyard, just off the porch steps. Thousands of chickens. Hundreds of ribs. About a billion burgers.

It has had nine lives, this old grill. When we lived in New Orleans, we used it to steam open oysters. And my lovely and patient older daughter once made candles on it with her Brownie troop.

The grill now sits, a sooty mess, looking like one of those tar trailers that roofers pull behind their trucks.

"What's wrong with this grill?" the little girl asks.

"Nothing," I say. "It's a good grill."

The little girl never knew the grill when it was new, shiny and out of the box. To her, this is what a grill is supposed to look like. Like something that separates ore. Like a miniature smelter.

"I like the old grill," she says.

As the chicken cooks, I tell her about some of the classic grills I've seen, the kind they built back in the '50s and '60s, when men built their barbecues by hand, turning a pile of bricks into giant monuments to summer evenings.

I remember when the first one went up in a backyard down the street. Then a neighbor built a bigger one. And so on.

"Whenever one was finished, the families would gather to honor the birth of a new barbecue," I tell the little girl.

"Like a baby," she says.

"Yeah, like a new baby," I say.

And the men would all stand around in front of the giant new barbecue, drinking bourbon and admiring the brickwork, smoking cigarettes as the smoke from the giant barbecue swept over them.

As it got darker, they'd light tiki torches and make bad jokes and before too long, one of the men would imagine that they could see a Soviet spy satellite circling high in the summer sky.

By the time the bourbon was gone, they'd convince one another that they'd better vote for Goldwater or one day that damned Russian spacecraft would swoop down and steal the 3-inch sirloins right off their grills, even as they stood there. And by then, it would be too late for America. By then, we'd have lost the space race. Not to mention our meat.

"Sounds like fun," the little red-haired girl says.

"It was fun," I tell her, as I turn the chicken.

"Back then, being an American was a little more fun," I say.

With that, the boy comes out the door carrying a bowl of barbecue sauce, careful to get both thumbs in the bowl.

"Here's the sauce," he says, licking his thumbs.

As the boy sits, I tell them more stories about the old days, about how Weber grills eventually came along and put the giant brick barbecues out of business.

And pretty soon the tiki torches were gone too. After that, backyards were never the same.

"We should build a barbecue," the boy says.

"Good idea," I say.

When it is done, we will have the neighbors over to admire our new grill--the ultimate grill, the start of a new era in grills. Something different. Half car, half barbecue. The Carbeque.

"Maybe we could get some tiki torches," I say.

"And bourbon," says the little red-haired girl.

"No bourbon," I say.

Then again, why not.

* Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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