My father was inviting some people from work to our house for a barbecue. He’d been in the office for awhile. We all just moved to Houston from the suburbs of New York City — sorry, New Jersey. He bought a gas grill to sit at the end of our backyard patio. This, I remember from what I retained as a 7-year-old. And, from the rest of the story he told.
A co-worker pulled him aside to ask what kind of food he was going to have. Hot dogs, hamburgers, the sort you’d expect at a backyard barbeque, he replied.
“Son,” I imagine this co-worker of my father’s saying, in a deep, Texas drawl, “that ain’t no barbecue. That’s a cookout.”
My parents and I did not know the difference. Much like Texans at the time did not know much of a difference between ketchup and spaghetti sauce. The contrast between the two is just as drastic.
And, so the moral of the story goes, different people have varying expectations when it comes to the good ol’ fashioned backyard cook out.
“I smoke a good turkey,” said Aaron Gallagher, a New York native now living in Austin, Texas. He knows the importance of preparing good food, but he relies on the memories from back home to help set the scene. “Any barbecue I ever had back home in New York when my grandmother was still alive. All bazillion relatives dropped by. The grill never cooled down. And, it lasted from sun-up until midnight. Games, fun, drinking, laughing, and most of it counted only on owning a badminton set … or just Frisbee.”
This coming weekend marks one of the biggest for outdoor cookouts. Everyone is either hosting, or going to one. If you happen to be one of those hosting, hopefully your plans are all set, because it takes more preparation than just marinating your chicken.
There’s a few questions to ask yourself. First, how do you like to grill the food; with gas or with charcoal?
Each has its benefits. Gas cooks clean and evenly. It gives you piece of mind that the heat will run evenly and consistently, without much monitoring on your end.
Charcoal, on the other hand, can be somewhat high maintenance. Even lighting the briquettes can be challenging. You may also want to set the briquettes off to the side of the tray: some foods, you’ll want to set directly above the heat, while others off to the side for a relatively slower cook. In the end, charcoal gives your food a smoked flavor you miss when cooking with gas.
Now, what kind of foods are you going to provide?
“Ribs, for us,” said Spotlight Living food columnist Annie Ciotoli. “Seafood, fish and vegetables for vegetarians. Shrimp on skewers marinated in lime juice, a good olive oil, some chili powder, cumin and cilantro.”
Beef, pork or chicken were the three options provided to those I initially questioned, but Ciotoli schooled me on how best to prepare for the guests you have coming over.
“Ribs,” said Colin Martin of Watervliet. “You’ve tried for years to get the secret recipe and ingredients, so you are witness.”
The main course will certainly be in the forefront of your mind as you make plans, but the side dishes are equally as important. People will tend to remember your cookout based on what you have available for a side.
“Freshly shucked oysters and steamed shrimp with lots of Old Bay,” said said Cynthia Grom-Harvey, a New York ex-patriot now living in Virginia. . “Lots of homemade salads; potato, macaroni, cole slaw and strawberry pretzel.”
Last, but most importantly, you need music. Know your audience.
“Anything that reminds me of summer weather, classic rock, Jimmy Buffett, oldies and anything regarding heat, lakes, rivers or oceans,” said Jeff Hicks of Rensselaer.
Music is often the conduit to the memories you make. Latching those memories to a certain song helps preserve the image.
Martin sets the mood with Hip-Hop and R&B blasting out of a speaker pointing out from his kitchen window. Dan Romand, our fitness columnist, is a big fan of Pearl Jam.
“Pearl Jam, baby,” he said. “All day, and all night.”
For Harvey, it’s the German Polka and accordion music ties the memories she has of her family together. It was what her grandparents played every year. That, and the DJ music that was there, too.
“I love seeing all of the family and friends who are like family come together and have a good time,” said Harvey. “Hanging out. Talking. My best memories as a kid were the parties held at my grandparents’ lake house in Roaring Brook Lake, in Putnam Valley. Grilling, lots of food, lots of drinks, lots of music. A friend was a DJ and would set up and play way into the night. … Sitting around the table and listening to stories of how my grandparents met and from my parents’ childhoods. Priceless.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.