My grill is a thing of beauty. At first glance, you might think it’s just another classic black Weber kettle, but you would be wrong. For example, while most Weber kettles require the user to lift the lid off and set it aside to gain access to the fire, my grill lid has an offset hinge that allows it to be rotated until it rests comfortably at the back, like a giant black frog’s mouth opening wide. The pot itself doesn’t sit atop three spindly legs like a Weber. Rather, it’s affixed to a sturdy cylindrical post in which resides the true magic of my grill. The four inch wide pillar houses a mechanism that allows the charcoal basket to be raised or lowered in relation to the grill grate. That’s right: I can cook low and slow or high and fast with a simple adjustment. I haven’t seen any Weber pots that can do that. My grill is a Kenmore brand, at least thirty years old, and I’ve never seen another like her. I inherited it from my dad when he opted to switch to a gas grill, a decision for which I have forgiven him despite my devotion to charcoal. After all, Dad was never a serious pit master. He cooked steaks and burgers for the most part, but his signature grilled dish was salmon. When he put thick coho or chinook steaks, seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper, over a live fire, he was a magnificent alchemist turning silver fish into food fit for golden gods. Once he moved away from southeast Alaska, and caught-this-morning fresh fish was less available, he opted for the convenience of gas to fire up more humble cuts of beef. The Kenmore charcoal grill became my first barbecue and set me on a path that has filled countless summer evenings with the deep satisfaction of cooking over a live fire while blue smoke curls and wafts, like a djinn rising from the lamp to grant culinary wishes. In KonMari terms, my grill sparks joy.
KonMari is a philosophy of tidying up that’s trending at the moment, and my wife and daughter are caught up in it. The idea is to reduce the amount of stuff until you achieve the ideal state of “a place for everything, and everything in its place.” To get there, Marie Kondo – author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up – urges readers to hold each possession in your hands and decide whether it sparks joy in your heart. To be clear, she wants you to do this with everything – including every pair of socks and each book – you own. Whether to a landfill or Goodwill, if it doesn’t spark joy in your heart, it needs to leave your house. As a result, we have begun a massive purge of stuff. Last weekend, rather than evaluate the joy-inducing qualities of my underwear, I tackled the stack of boxes in the closet. The boxes had sat undisturbed for years, filled with memorabilia ranging from pre-school works of art by our kids to blue book exams and papers from the college years. Opening the lids to those boxes was a powerful dose of nostalgia, and my wife and I were thrown deep into the Wonderland rabbit hole of our past.
One of the boxes was filled with my writing from 20 or more years ago. Back then, I was a recently-graduated Literature major, which means I could read the shit out of poetry. Words were everything to me, and I wrote because it seemed important. In that box, I found loose pages and notebooks filled with my ramblings. They weren’t journals so much as thought exercises; random explorations of ideas and emotions, some more structured than others. Most interesting, I found a 56 page manuscript that amounts to a first draft of my second book – Metal Fatigue – for which I have no memory of writing. I kept the manuscript, but I threw a lot of the other words away. I decided to keep enough so that my kids can look through it, if they so desire, and get a sample of how their twenty-something father thought about life when he was young. I also want to keep a bit in the off chance I become famous. I want the literary critics to have some material to dive into to try to understand my perspective. Good luck with that. Personally, I don’t have much desire to read it now. Those musings are long past and don’t have a lot of value. I don’t want to dwell in that past considering the challenges I’m having with the present. The musings of a 22-year old don’t hold a lot of promise for answers. Trust me, I know that kid. He was naive. I’m comfortable with my decision to recycle a lot of that paper, but it wasn’t easy. Some of the pages sparked joy, and others sparked anxiety.
After an emotional day of making choices about which bits of my past to keep, I found respite in grilling. I tilted the lid of my Kenmore back and filled the basket with a chimney full of gray, glowing Kingsford briquets. I placed the grate over the fire to let it come up to temperature and went to the kitchen. After gathering the necessary hardware (cooking utensils) and software (food), I returned to the patio and got to work. I brushed the grates with oil and placed chicken thighs that had been soaking up garlic, cilantro, and Thai fish sauce all day. Twelve thighs in a circle, creating the face of a delightful, and soon to be delicious, culinary clock. I tended the chicken carefully, ensuring each thigh was properly cooked, the skin brought to a burnt caramel crunch and the meat to succulent perfection. The thai chicken was the Mother’s day dinner, but I was thinking about my dad.
As I cooked, I thought about all those words I had sent to the trash, including the note from my Dad. Among the greeting cards, newspaper clippings, and wedding invitations, I had found a simple handwritten note, which I recognized as my dad’s distinctive script. It was an apology. Nothing dramatic. He apologized for being cranky about something or other. I don’t remember the details, and I wasn’t holding a grudge. I threw the note away. It didn’t spark joy. While it was nice to read that hand-written note and be reminded of a moment when my dad reached out to me, I don’t need that slip of paper to know that my father loved me. I have no doubt about it. I know it every time I cook on that Kenmore grill and recall perfectly pink salmon steaks cooked for me and my family by my father. Joy sparked. I miss you, Dad.
Speaking of grilling, I encourage you to check out this post from a friend, who reminds us that those of us who have the opportunity and privilege of having a healthy and tasty meal each day should appreciate that and just get up to cook it.