I've never tried barbecuing before.

Yes, I've been around a barbecue before — many times — I've just never done the cooking myself. I don't know if it's because of that fact or if it was the abandoned, decrepit BBQ that came with my new apartment, but I grew curious about the use of fire as a means of cooking. I wondered about the primal draw of cooking over a flame and how that experience has changed today.

beer, tea
Paige Weiler

In my family, barbecuing has always been a setting for socializing. Being a summer baby, all of my birthdays included an outdoor, fire-grilled meal in the backyard. Here's mini-me (centre) and two childhood friends eating hot dogs and cake at their family cottage.

Preparing food, being outdoors, and a celebratory feeling of summer and friendship always seems to be the essence of barbecuing. But what is it that makes that happen?

A Historic Reflection

GIF courtesy of giphy.com

As I'm sure most people can agree with, my first visuals of Homo sapiens and fire are crude and primal. I recall watching Quest for Fire in the 11th grade: fur-clad, grunting, dreadlocked and square-faced cave-people desperately searching for a new source of fire.

To them, fire meant life. Today, fire still means life (and creation), but the open flame isn't so directly present in our lives, save for barbecuing or a rare situation like Tom Hanks in Cast Away.

As many historians claim, fire and cooking are what make us human. Cooking is a human's natural means of power. It's as if cooking with fire is a harmonious unity between the world's energy and our human energy. The sharing of this power therefore becomes a medium for humanity. In this day and age, barbecuing is a re-connection to nature and to our past.

The Idea of The Meal

If you haven't yet watched or read Cooked, I greatly recommend you do so. The mini-documentary series follows journalist Michael Pollan in his re-education and re-evaluation of food and cooking.

"The meal is an incredible human institution, and there is a lot going on at a meal, especially with meat," Pollan says. This includes everything from the finding and hunting of the animal to the preparation, cooking time, and the undeniable history and symbolism behind the act.

Fire and barbecuing become the medium of elevation and creation. As Pollan states, "Cooking with fire, it's the great reaffirmation of our very special place in the cosmos" between the animals and the gods. Humans can cook and have a greater consciousness of themselves within the world. The skills needed, the pleasure of the process, and the age-old tradition make barbecuing a very personal experience.

Pollan also mentions that when barbecuing, the cook has the opportunity to acquire a certain type of identity. They can either be a maker, producer, and provider or merely a consumer. This definitely caused me to be self-conscious during my first-ever time barbecuing for my family.

Commence the Cooking

steak, pork
Paige Weiler

My dad has always liked explaining things to people, so naturally he was excited when I asked him to teach me how to barbecue. He took me to the grocery store and walked me through all of the steps. He highlighted the importance of knowing the cut of meat, the price, and the intended result.

I hadn't realized all of the options when choosing a cut of meat and how you want to cook it, or that more red doesn't equal the best cut. My dad taught me that marbling (when thin veins of fat are present throughout the meat instead of just solid strips) is very important, because that's what gives the best flavour.

The fat within the marbled meat breaks up while it's over the flame, simultaneously cooking within the meat and dripping onto the coals, then returning to the meat through the flames and smoke. #flavourtown

steak, sauce, lamb, pork, beef
Paige Weiler

While we sat by the BBQ as the New York strip loin steaks cooked, Dad continued explaining the process of barbecuing. To him, barbecuing offers a sense of independence, accomplishment, and enjoyment, especially when he sees others enjoying the food he's cooked for them. He feels that cooking on a barbecue is both an outlet for control and a time for relaxing, knowing that the labor he put in will be rewarded.

For my dad, barbecuing supplies hilarious memories of BBQ mishaps and provides a setting for both celebratory and casual gatherings for family and friends. Upon my own reflection of barbecuing, I find it an outlet for some vital characteristics of being human: care, patience, and individuality.

From the care in choosing the perfect cut of meat to the patience in waiting for the fire to cook the meat to the expression of individuality in seasoning and presenting the food, barbecuing fulfills the human desires to make and share.