On Sundays in the summer we have “Grill Your Own” for dinner. It’s a great time to get together in nice outdoor weather (fingers crossed it’s not raining because there is no “Plan B”) and make food together as one big family.
I love grilling. I really love to BBQ (the right way) – spending hours maintaining the proper temp and keeping the conditions perfect so those ribs turn out just the way you want them – juicy, delicious, and flavorful.
Grill Your Own is not like this at all.
This is survival of the fittest meets the world’s largest backyard “grill”. Our grill is about 20 feet long, 4 feet wide and beautifully built out of brick – with zero accommodation given for airflow, venting, or temperature control. Six large bags of charcoal are piled onto solid sheets of metal and started with copious amounts of lighter fluid. Once they are well and truly lit they are spread out and grill grates are placed 4 to 6 inches above them. There’s no built-in height adjustment so we use bricks instead. That’s it. I love this grill for turning it into a giant ad hoc smoker when I want to smoke 50 chickens for the community – not so much for actual grilling. But, for burgers and hot dogs it gets the job done.
Officially dinner starts at 5 around here. Normally we line up, fill our plates with lovingly made food from our kitchen, find a seat in the dining room and proceed to enjoy said food and the company of our fellow community members. But this is where things start to go off the rails with “Grill Your Own”.
As the day’s designated cooks hurriedly finish preparing the sides, toppings, and the grill for use (hoping the coals are actually ready) the hungry would-be grillers prowl around the edges willing everything to be ready so they can claim their spot on the coals. Once things are finally ready the grates are placed on the grill and the flood gates are released. Dozens of hungry grillers rush forward to claim their frozen hamburger patties and hot dogs (sorry, no steaks here – unless you brought your own…).
Space on the grill fills quickly as people place their burgers (and chicken if we’re really feeling festive – but good luck not drying it out cause remember that part about no temperature control?). If those coals are really fresh be prepared to lose some arm hair as that temp can be HOT. I’ve seen fully frozen burgers cook (on both sides) in under 3 minutes. On the flip side (pun not intended) if you arrive after 5:30 to cook your food it’s going to be a waiting game. Temps can be quite low and your burger is going to fall under the “slow cook” category.
There are lots of flavoring options to add salt, pepper, worcestershire, garlic powder (who puts garlic powder on a burger?), or whatever spice or flavoring strikes their fancy. Pro tip – this is a good opportunity to mark your burgers in a visually distinctive way so you can actually remember which ones are yours out of the 50 burgers now filling the grill. Otherwise, you can put all that care into making sure they are cooked just right and then someone accidentally takes your perfectly cooked burger and now you’re left with the sad abandoned garlic powder burger that’s been slowly shrinking as it overcooks for the last 20 minutes. If it gets much smaller it will probably fall through the grates to a well deserved end.
Tongs and spatulas are shared around as needed. There aren’t enough for everybody to have their own so it’s a good time to practice being OK not holding onto a spatula while your food is cooking. There’s something weirdly universal about holding onto (and playing with) tongs or a spatula while grilling. There’s almost a security blanket type effect with those tongs. It’s like if you’re not holding a spatula you’re not actually “grilling” even though you’re just letting the charcoal do all the work. Or maybe it’s just me…
Also, if you really want to go to the next level, restrain yourself and LEAVE THE MEAT ALONE. Constantly moving it, flipping it, and (God forbid) pressing on it with a spatula just ruins your dinner. Unless you enjoy dry, tasteless, hockey puck hamburgers, then by all means, carry on. The charcoal is doing all the real work here. Your job is to stay out of its way.
And of course, like any grill out, you’re really hoping it’s not going to rain. Our grill area has no roof. When necessary a tarp shelter is jury rigged over as much of the grill as possible but it’s not what you’d call a “permanent solution”. Sometimes it holds up. Sometimes the torrential downpour overwhelms it and now you don’t need to worry about what to do with your empty hands while you’re not holding tight to that spatula because you’re helping hold the tarp up and trying to drain off all the water in a way that doesn’t completely soak someone near the outside all while trying to keep your precious burger safe and dry. It’s definitely what you’d call a bonding experience.
At the end of it all, you may have lost some arm hair, hopefully it didn’t rain, and you actually walked away from the grill with YOUR burgers (unless yours are really bad, then maybe try and slip away with someone else’s?). For my own mental sanity I don’t think of it as “grilling”. To me it’s a chance to hang out and literally rub elbows with someone I haven’t gotten a chance to talk with in awhile. It’s a weird, wacky, one-of-a-kind experience that is so wonderfully us. So I continue to look forward to elbowing my way into the grill, claiming my 0.5 square foot of unknown heat quality, cooking my burgers, and enjoying life with family.
Scott Stahnke has lived in intentional community for over 95% of his life and joined Jesus People way back in the nineties. He manages Nine3nine Creative, a small graphic design studio and a Jesus People mission business. When he’s not frantically building websites, he loves to BBQ, play board games, read, and spend time with his wife, Heather, and their adorable hedgehog, Stormie. He is also ridiculously enthusiastic about going backpacking in the Grand Canyon.