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THE CHI OF GRILLING PROTEIN

For 14 seasons I’ve been building a urban backyard oasis. Yeah I call it that actually. Never out loud but often in my head. For four months a year, my backyard becomes a place I retreat to BBQ. When I say retreat, I mean ‘escape from’. My family. My work. My worries. These are short, solitary escapes. Just me with some kind of protein, a bottle, spices and my camera.

Mine is not the kind of backyard you would see in a magazine and my BBQ isn’t some fancy outdoor ‘cooking station’ from Italy. It’s a Broil Mate. Though it sounds vaguely Australian, its just a run-of-the-mill stainless steel behemoth from somewhere in America. I bought it at a local Home Depot — like any Home Depot is local — but close by. A sales person in an orange smock sold it to me. She regaled me and my eight year old son with animated stories of exceptional grilling possibilities. Turkeys. Deer. Hog. Even lobsters. Somehow. She was manic. When she said lobsters, she clicked her hands like claws and laughed in a way that made my son clutch my leg a little. I was sold or scared. Both maybe.

Two years have past since then. I tried to cook some fancy things on the big barbecue. But I’ve mostly cooked burgers. Sometimes fish. My grilling criteria became simple. I’ll BBQ anything that’s uncomplicated, that gives me time to putter, think, drink…and shoot. Yes, somehow photography became a passion interwoven with barbecuing. Over time, I’ve become a bit like a backyard Ansel Adams, if he only went 20’ from home and drank wine. I cook, sip and shoot.

I live on a longitude that had extreme weather way before it came in fashion. The winters here are brutish marathons. Despite this, I grill outside all year. My next door neighbours are from Sudan or somewhere that starts with an s that’s temperate. They speak in heavy accents, muffled by cloth. I frequently hear their teeth chatter under their burkas. It’s an unnerving, out of place sound.

One December night the neighbours called the fire department as they thought my backyard was on fire. The firefighters were nice about it. One gave me a tip on a meat rub, another checked the coupler on my propane tank. As the firemen packed up, the truck’s red emergency lights caught the faces of my neighbours peering from their kitchen window. Towards them, into the snow and smoke, I mouthed ‘Just cooking!’ and mimed flipping burgers. I was in a huge parka. They waved back, weakly. Even in burkas I could tell they looked incredulous. Welcome to Hoth, I said to myself and drank red wine from the bottle. They closed the drapes. Quickly.

Cooking outside in arctic conditions makes summer grilling twice, maybe four times, as enjoyable. In winter, this place is devoid of everything, including sound. In summer, colour returns and sounds come back. The winds become soft and welcome. The sky is Costco. Herds of white obese clouds waddle endlessly. You can practically hear the plants photosynthesizing, lunging at the sun. Birds and squirrels gorge themselves on seeds and grubs. For wildlife it’s a three month all you can eat buffet. The lilacs erupt in pinks and gush sweet perfume, practically begging for pollination. The poplars cough white fluff. It all smells…well, incredible. Like a fair or circus. The intermingling of so many disparate, competing organic scents creates a kind of thick musk…that permeates straight to my lizard brain. That smell reminds me of so many good times, over so many kilometers, over so many years.

Everything happens quickly here in the warm season. Except my cooking. I slow it down. Draw it out. Savour it. Even in a 50’x100’ lot there’s so much to see. You just have to look for it. Wait for it.

I wait all year for this season. I’m so glad its here.

(This post also appears on Exposure. https://misterday.exposure.co/flip-snap-sip-repeat)