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Thrill of the Grill

“Barbecuing in the backyard is some of the most fun you can have with your buddies.” —Merritt Hayslett

To some guys, the urge to “tame the flame” is something primeval; the crisscross grill marks on the meat are a testament to its delicious baptism by fire. To others, a hot grill is like an artist’s bare canvas that, on it, opens up a world of endless possibilities.

The truth is, you’ll probably hear different recommendations from each guy you talk to as though he is the direct descendant of the original caveman who invented fire. Some will tell you to use a gas grill only; others will tell you that the briquette is the only way to go—making sure to stack the coals like a tiny version of the great pyramids. Some grill with wood chips; others use smokers. But one thing all guys tend to agree on is that fire makes a piece of meat pretty darn tasty.

While nobody really knows the origins of the word barbecue, the Spaniards claim it’s derived from the word barbacoa, a Native American word for the framework of branches used to cook meat over open fire. There is even an intriguing myth about how the letters BBQ came to represent this style of cooking. It supposedly stems from earlier days when roadhouses and beer joints with pool tables would advertise, “Bar, Beer, and Cues,” later shortened to BBCue, and somehow became known as BBQ.

Like men, barbecuing has evolved. A ritual passed down from generation to generation. Modern man is scientifically proven never to be happier than when he has tongs in one hand, an ice-cold beverage in the other, and a blast of fire in his face.

“My dad got me started barbecuing when I was young,” said Chris Papion, owner of Pappy’s Down South BBQ in Bakersfield. “I took a real fondness to it when I got older and was introduced to beer. I guess it kind of just went together.”

For some men, there’s that male bonding instinct. Always standing by to help flip a burger, or just huddling round to admire another man’s barbecuing artistry.

“It’s a social thing,” said former “event-barbequee-turned-backyard-enthusiast” Merritt Hayslett. “The guys all gravitate around the grill while the ladies are inside.

Barbecuing in the backyard is some of the most fun you can have with your buddies.”

For others, grilling is survival. Brand new firefighters live and die by their ability to prepare an edible meal, and a rookie learns very quickly if they are accepted into the station or not, and cooking is usually a big part of that.

“My dad got me started barbecuing when I was young.” —Chris Papion

“They’ll teach you how to fight fires, but if you don’t know how to cook, you’ve got troubles,” explained Trever Martinusen, captain for the Bakersfield City Fire Department. “If you’re a decent cook, you get a lot of rave reviews; if you’re not, you get a lot of praise in a different way. So my first instinct to feed some hungry fireman was to go to the barbecue, experimenting on the family and then taking those ideas to the station house.”

There are also those that have taken barbecue to the next level. Gary Icardo, of Icardo Farms, cranks out enough steaks each year to feed a small country at the CSUB Spring BBQ—a family tradition that began with the late Jimmie Icardo, and one that his son has overseen since 1973.

“I do about six large events a year, with the largest being around 4,000 people,” said Icardo, “ One of the most important things I have learned, is how important it is to have the right set up.”

Then there’s guys like Jeff Tensley, a substitute teacher whose 22 years of grilling experience has recently prompted him to become the co-owner of Grills on Wheels.

Selecting the right barbecue is like choosing the right automobile for one’s lifestyle. A man goes from machine to machine, comparing its features—542-square-inches of grilling space, the 1,600-degree-tolerance linings, a matte steel overcoat that resists scratching, the built-in electrical meat thermometer, a side-mounted smoker box, and four insulated drink holders.

While most guys prefer charcoal and wood, there are others that use gas. Propane has its place, but prop-heads are really the Mac users of grilling. Nothing compares to the way meat tastes after charbroiling above a bed of smoldering, ash-gray charcoals, or even better, wood...certainly not the mouth-numbing mediocrity of any fine meat defiled by a propane flame.

“At home I use gas, but it’s pathetic,” said Icardo. “You never get the same heat from gas as you do from charcoal or wood, even turning it all the way up.”

“You get people that barbecue on gas all their life, and then you give them something that’s been cooked over an all-wood fire, and they just think it’s the greatest,” added Tensley, who is often seen ransacking local housing developments for left-over pieces of scrap wood to use as kindling in his 760-square-inch black iron barbecue pit.

“Brand new firefighters live and die by their ability to prepare an edible meal.” —Trever Martinusen

And, yes, size does matter fellas, at least when it comes to fire. And there are a number of good woods that can fuel a man-size flame. Ranging from garden-variety fruitwoods to Santa Maria Valley red oak, that burns as hot as 600 degrees or more.

“The heat seals everything inside,” added Icardo. “Lay down more briquettes or wood than you really need to make sure that grill gets hot. Really overdo it.”

But beware, because wherever there is smoke, there is usually fire...really hot fire. With a little lighter fluid, a flame, and some alcohol, what could possibly go wrong?

“I caught a neighbor’s barbecue on fire one time and he got really upset,” Hayslett said with a smile. “I built up a really hot fire and because he hadn’t [done so] in a while, all the grease and build-up ignited. Needless to say, he wasn’t happy, and I haven’t been asked to barbecue at his house since.”

“It’s important to get good quality meats,” explained Martinusen. “Choosing a good cut of meat isn’t just about how much it costs. It’s about getting the right piece of meat for your recipe so that when you cook it, the magic happens.”

A good starter is tri-tip. It’s fairly inexpensive, most people enjoy the taste, and it can be prepared by smoking, direct flame, or indirect flame. But before you start cooking, you’ll want to prepare your sacrificial offering with a manly marinade of sorts.

This is where the rubber hits the asphalt, and like a modern-day alchemist, each guy protects the very secret to what he considers the elixir that makes his barbecue stand out from all the rest.

“I use the cheapest red wine you can get. You know the stuff—the big gallon bottle with the thumb-hole,” Icardo said, laughing. “Let the meat sit in there about 48 hours. It will soak in the wine until it actually turns purple. Then squeeze some fresh lemons in with it. It will break that meat down, making it juicy and tender.”

“One of the most important things I have learned, is how important it is to have the right set up.” —Gary Icardo

“I use Bernstein’s Italian salad dressing,” added Hayslett. “I soak whatever I am cooking for around 24 hours and people are crazy about the taste.”

Some guys prefer to sear their steer without a marinade, opting to apply a thick syrupy type substance. You know it as BBQ sauce. Every serious home barbecuer’s got to have a signature sauce or...three. Either built from the ground up or through a little reverse engineering.

“I start off with a base of Sweet Baby Rays,” Tensley shared. “Then I put my own spin on it by adding a little dry mustard, crushed red peppers, and beer. The yeast in the beer helps break down the meat and acts like a tenderizer.”

Other guys take it a step further, pushing the boundaries until they reach the cornucopia of deliciousness with the perfect blend of sweet and spicy. Not the kind of hot that’s uncomfortable, just enough that it’s saying hello and making sure you know it’s there.

“My signature is a mango salsa,” said Martinusen. “ You take two to three mangos, mix in some diced red onion, and cilantro, chopped jalapeños, and stir it together like a salsa. You can serve it on the side or over the top. It’s simple, but people will think you put a lot of work into it.”

But whether you’re a wet marinader, dry rubber, or sauce slinger, one thing rings true for all men when it comes to barbecuing: it’s competitive.

But man wasn’t content with keeping his skills confined to the dark recesses of the backyard man cave, and took these macho weenie roasts to a public arena where he could show off his mastery of the flame. Competitive grill masters travel the circuit loaded up with meat, equipment, and secret recipes to go head-to-head in a little “guerrillan” warfare with enthusiasts in hundreds of barbecue competitions each year.

Papion, whose brisket took first place in last year’s Bakersfield’s Biggest Baddest BBQ competition at Stramler Park, said, “It’s serious business out there, you don’t want to show your hand, and guys are very secretive about sharing anything.”

“You get people that barbecue on gas all their life, and then you give them something that’s been cooked over an all-wood fire, and they just think it’s the greatest.” —Jeff Tensley

But regardless of man’s need to conquer his enemy, neighbor, or, in some cases, his best friend, to most, barbecuing is still synonymous with relaxation and plain ol’ good fun. A harmonious gathering of regular Joes trading in their office attire and uniforms for shorts, T-shirts, and ball caps—the official uniform of America’s weekend warrior—and laying aside their competitive spirit to swap testosterone-fueled “bro” hugs before sharing in the innocuous backyard ritual.

“Even with the biggest events we do, the most important thing is good times...good food. And I’m not just talking about the patrons,” said Icardo. “The same thing goes for the guys on the crews. In fact, sometimes I have to keep them from having too much fun.”

That’s why backyard grilling is a year-round phenomenon plied by men attired in camouflage aprons emblazoned with the words “The Grill God,” skilled in the dark arts of barbecuing, and wielding small pitch-forked tools.

“Barbecuing is something everyone can do regardless of social or economic status. You don’t have to have a lot of money wrapped up in an extravagant set up or buy the most expensive cuts of meat,” Papion elaborated. “You can pretty much start a fire with whatever you have lying around, and whether you burn what you’re cooking or not, it’s still good.”

“Barbecuing is an art form, it takes time and practice to master it,” added Tensley. “But keep it simple. If you get too elaborate, it takes the fun out of it.”

So what makes grilling and barbecuing such a manly pursuit?

If you think about it, the answer is obvious. As long as man exists, he will always enjoy, fire, smoke, a mess you can clean up with a leaf blower and a garden hose (by the way ladies, men would do more housework if you’d let them clean the house that way), the camaraderie of friends, and a piece of flesh so tasty that it’s sure to prompt even the most devoted vegetarian to put down that wimpy tofu burger.

Article appeared in our 27-2 Issue - June 2010