Having a yard has been sweet surprise, like picking mushy cornbread out of my molars with my tongue. I mean, I’ve always liked gardening. I even like to mow the lawn. But I spent the last six years in Brooklyn, with planter boxes on concrete and gardens with more brick and glass than rocks in the soil; Saturdays the smell of grills interleaved with the winds of hot trash.
Sometimes I’d walk out into the park and pluck hookers right off the tree.
Okay, not really. Grilling and such in New York is quite a lot of fun. But I spent Saturday and the better part of Sunday at my house here in Eugene, poking around in Movable Type with Rob while tending to a pork loin that I was smoking in my new Charbroil American Gourmet Smoker, sipping a ridiculously wonderful lambic, watching Porter run around in the yard sniffing ferns, and being rejuvenated by one of the first legendarily awesome Oregon rainless spring days.
It’s the first time in my adult life that I’ve had a yard, and I’ve lucked out with this one, with its blackberry bushes, bamboo stands, and flower-happy landscaping. It even had a garden pre-cut in the yard with a sprinkler outlet underneath, although I’ll be damned if I can figure out how to actually turn the sprinkler on.
I’m just renting this place—I only plan on being in Eugene for a couple of years, and I don’t think I could afford to buy it, besides—but even after just a few weeks I think I may be spoiled already. There’s just something incredibly civilized about it all, lounging in your couple hundred square feet of nature, enjoying the grounds.
(For the record, I have no idea why the yard has a sprinkler system—in Oregon of all places—and I don’t plan on running it anyway. If I wasted all that water on the yard, what would I use to wash my car in the hot tub every day?)
In Brooklyn I used an indoor stovetop smoker for years, which wasn’t perfect for actual barbecue, but can produce surprisingly great meat, provided you can get the meat inside. They don’t even stink up the house as much as you’d think. Within a couple of hours after using the stovetop smoker, the smell would usually have dissipated, although we didn’t have carpets. I’d often smoke some pork ribs for a couple of hours on the stove, then rub them outside to grill for a few minutes and slap on some sauce. (Unlike some, I think tomato-based barbecue sauces taste best when slightly caramelized by the heat of a grill, although one should avoid any actual burning if possible.)
I lost the stovetop smoker in the break-up, though, along with the beer brewing gear*, so I needed a new grill. So on a lark we went to Jerry’s, a honkin’ home improvement store out by the airport, staffed by some really nice people and a few confused starlings.
What I saw there was a shock. Three aisles of “barbecue grills”, most of which were gas-powered, and many of which cost over a thousand dollars. As Justin said at the last Baker Boulevard Geographic Society meeting, “Grills like that are a lifestyle choice.”Besides, gas is meant for the kitchen, not the grill. I understand it’s more convenient, but it’s just not the same for me, in flavor or experience. I don’t even like using pressed charcoal briquettes, preferring chunk charcoal or even just wood chunks.
But really, grilling over gas or over charcoal is mostly affectation in the first place: heat is heat is heat. And none of it is actually barbecue.
Which is why I ended up buying the embarrassingly named American Gourmet, a little offset smoker than also works fine as a grill. The best thing about it: It was $100, very nearly the cheapest grill in the store. I was amazed that the grill closest to my ideal was so inexpensive, but it wasn’t made of burnished metal and didn’t have any infrared warming trays, either.
It’s mostly just two simple black metal tubes bolted together. (And the owner does the bolting, which took me about a can of Dale’s Pale Ale to get through.) The grill height can be adjusted in the smoker box simply by turning it ninety degrees—the bottom is curved, so the rectangular grill sits higher. Nothing fancy about it at all.
It does have a thermometer that sits on the top of the main chamber, just a few inches from the stovepipe. That’s handy, because when you’re smoking, keeping a constant temperature for a long time is important. You might only bring the smoke up to 250° (or less!), but need the internal temperature of your meat to reach, say, 180&dwg; for several hours to make sure it’s properly cooked.
It works, but it’s entry-level equipment. The smoker box is pretty small, making it difficult to get a constant smoke going without periodic noodling, which further affects the temperature in the main chamber. And because there’s just a couple-inch lip separating the smoking chamber from the main chamber, it’s easy to get ash and soot in there if you blow too hard on the coals to try to get them to hot up—which you wouldn’t have to do if not for the small smoke chamber.
The metal of the smoker walls is also very thin. So thin, in fact, that when I put coals in the main chamber to grill some steaks, the metal had warped itself enough that I couldn’t fully insert the cooking grills. Cooking on a slope is a pain, although the steaks still came out fine—it’s hard to beat the searing heat of real hardwood briquettes. (Although lest you think I’m too far up my own ass, I think almost the best way to cook a steak is to skip the fire entirely and cook it in a cast-iron skillet.)
Worse, the thin metal means that smoke tends to leak at every loose seam, from the door to the place where the smoke chamber attaches to the main chamber. Not the end of the world, but it does make it more difficult to maintain a constant level of smoke and heat, especially since the smoke chamber is relatively small to begin with, so any wisp of smoke that isn’t going over the meat feels like a waste.
That said, I’m pleased. As a grill it allows all the finesse of a public park grill, but that’s fine—grilling isn’t a precision art. It’s a middling grill with a middling smoker attached, but until I someday muster the gumption to actually build a smoker of my own out of something sturdier, I suspect it’ll do.
* Which is another story. Ask me about my shattered carboy!