The Life Changing Magic of Grilling


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.


8 thoughts on “The Life Changing Magic of Grilling

  1. That was good stuff, Todd. Obviously I enjoyed this read. All of it. I’ve been admiring your grill for a while now. Yup, I haven’t seen anything like it either. Maybe they were common place back in the day, I dunno. It’s a cool rig tho. I also have to admire your pit sound system there! Or was that a victim of the purge too?

    My wife and I have been experimenting with the less is more thing too. It makes sense. Some things are easy to let go, but others, not so much. do I really need 9 spatulas in my kitchen drawer? Nope. We were able to whittle them down to only 3. Old rotten pants with holes in them – easy. Video games I haven’t played, ever – easy. But when I came to my book shelf, where many books reside that I haven’t lifted in years, for some reason I found them very difficult to part with. Which is silly, but that’s how it was. Speaking of books…

    Got any tips for publishing to amazon kindle? I’ve been collecting up some of my camping and outdoor memoirs and want to do something with them. So I established a KDP account with amazon, and am exploring what it’s about. Making practice book covers and what not. Not too thrilled about giving amazon my ss# and bank account, but what can you do… Anyways, have you any tips on the matter? Formatting needs perhaps. And are photos even worth doing on a kindle? I heard once they take up more bandwidth or something.

    Wow, this reply kind of evolved. My apologies for it’s long-windedness. You just do cool stuff! And you are who you are..

    • The sound system is a “replica” Marshall amp stack. It’s actually just a shell I built as a storage cabinet for my grilling hardware. As you know, I’m a metal head, so I try to keep the theme going in the backyard.

      We are going to tackle the spatulas tomorrow. The books were a bit tougher, but I felt good about donating so many to the local library. Hopefully somebody will read them. They weren’t getting any love on my shelf. As a literature major in college, I realize that the real value of books is in the reading of them.

      Speaking of books…I don’t know nothin’ about photos on kindle. I haven’t tried it, but I’d like to learn more. Don’t limit yourself to Kindle. Try CreateSpace (also through Amazon) so you can produce a real live paper back book. It’s deeply satisfying to hold your own book in your hands. All my publishing via KDP and CreateSpace has been via the free stuff. I didn’t want to pay for fancier cover art options, so I did what I could with the free templates and I’m pleased with the results. My main advice is to get your manuscript as perfect as possible in Word (or whatever word processing software you use) before you upload it into the KDP or CreateSpace editor software. I can explain more if you’d like. Hit me up on Facebook sometime to carry on the conversation via messaging.

      If you’d like a beta-reader for your draft manuscript, let me know. I’d be happy to lend a critical eye, as long as it wouldn’t damage our cordial relationship.


  2. Thanks Todd. Some sage advice, sounds like. It’s groovy to be acquainted with an experienced author!

    And a tip of the hat to your grilling tool storage facility – the fake Marshall amp. You achieve some cool points on that one! Long may it survive the purge!

  3. Hmm…I’m not sure I buy into the premise of KonMari. While I am a fan of decluttering and the occasional shit-purge, “sparking joy” doesn’t seem (to me) to be a broad enough criteria for keeping something.

    Example: I have a box that was my step-mother’s box. It’s a small, unremarkable, square cardboard box. On top is the word “God”. It’s a “God box” and in it are all the prayers she wrote during the last few years of her life. I’ve read the prayers; they don’t spark any joy. Her last years were filled with worry, anxiety, fear, anger, and despair.

    There’s no way in hell I’d ever toss out that box. I keep it because it’s instructive. It makes me feel something, but it isn’t joy.

    Now, as to that “fish turner” in the kitchen tool drawer…well, that I can definitely get rid of.

    • While Ms. Kondo is a strict adherent to the “joy” thing, I’m using it as a way to think a bit deeper about why I’m choosing to keep something. I agree, there are some things that don’t spark joy, yet I will never throw them away. Having less stuff overall increases the odds that the stuff I do keep can be displayed, or read, or reflected upon from time to time rather than being forgotten in a cardboard box in the closet.

      Fare thee well, fish turner. I hardly used ye.

  4. This post made me realize that my old, trusty Weber is really NOT the best tool. I searched for a kettle with an adjustable fire tray, but found nothing (as you said).

    Not to be put off, I looked through the non-kettle grills that have adjustable fire-trays. I found two that look promising (i.e., they have what I want, and they don’t cost a grand). Any advice on one or the other?

    Dyna-Glo DGN405DNC-D Heavy Duty Charcoal Grill
    Char-Broil Charcoal Grill, 580 Square Inch

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