First, the bad news. My father died unexpectedly of a heart attack two years ago. Nearly to the day. It was just a week after Father's Day—one that thankfully, I got to spend with him in my hometown just outside St. Louis. But then he was gone. Just like that. So of course I miss him, a lot. I miss chatting with him and asking him questions. There are so many things we'd planned to do that we put off, thinking there'd be time to do them later. I'm so grateful for all the time we did have, though, and all the things he taught me over the years.
When I think of the quality time we spent, I often come back to sitting on a well-worn lawn chair in our backyard as he grilled in the summertime. It was in those long stretches of comfortable silence, in the shade of a white ash tree where I bravely asked for my first sip of beer, that he grilled a midwest barbecue staple: the pork steak. If you're unfamiliar with this cut, sliced from the pork shoulder, let me assure you that you're missing out. It's a meaty, flavorful steak that packs everything you love about smokey, sauce-y ribs into one satisfying slab of pork.
My dad would grill them as soon as the weather was warm enough. Often, if he was out behind the grill, I would make my way over to keep him company. Even as an adult, I'd find myself out in the backyard whenever I was home and he was manning the grill. My mom and I are very close, but there was something about that time, when it was just the two of us out there. It was a tradition of sorts. Looking back, I recognize he was passing down knowledge. Lessons in mastering the perfect pork steak, sure, but also life lessons that extend way past the backyard. Herewith, five simple facts my father taught me from the side of that beat-up old grill.
what you want
The best meal is only as good as its ingredients. My dad took this to heart and never settled for what was simply given to him. The packaged pork steaks at the grocery store looked like what you'd expect—cuts of meat, fanned out on a styrofoam tray and wrapped in columnsophane. But my dad would pick up a package from the refrigerated case and point out that sometimes, lesser quality steaks could be hiding behind the nicer ones on the top of the stack. Plus, he preferred a slightly thicker cut, so he'd always go straight to the butcher counter and ask for six or eight steaks cut-to-order. I remember seeing a look of recognition in the butcher's smile. Like he appreciated a man who knew what he wanted and asked for it. Maybe that's why my dad's steaks were always better than anyone else's.
Just because it's fancy doesn't mean it's better
I'll be honest, this was a tough lesson for me to swallow. I'm a city-dwelling sophisticate who loves designer candles and high-end grooming products, so I'm used to shelling out for quality. But after a failed attempt at gifting my father with a fancy set of polished grilling tools (complete with a handsome carrying case), he assured me he had all that he needed. What he needed was neither fancy nor expensive. A long pair of stainless steel tongs. "They don't make 'em like these any more," he'd always say. A rather beat-up wire brush. I asked how often he replaced it, to which he simply replied, "Haven't needed to yet." And finally, the most memorable of all: his squeeze bottle for dampening any flare-ups. This was not a standard squirt bottle. It was an old bottle that once held Dawn dishwashing liquid. Washed out and since rubbed bare of any label from years of use. They worked for him, he figured, so why change it?
Don't take things
I remember early on in my adulthood, living on my own and attempting to grill my first pork steaks on a tiny Weber grill that sat on the equally small back patio of my Georgetown apartment. I called my Dad in a panic. I actually can't recall what the emergency was, I only remember his response: "Don't worry, if your coals are hot and your meat's on the grill, it'll turn out fine." And he was right. It's easy to get in over our heads and worry about the outcome of things. But you're better off staying in the moment, controlling what you can and not worrying about the stuff you can't. With any luck, you'll end up right where you were hoping to all along.
Feel free to
sweat the small stuff
Don't get me wrong, my dad took his grilling seriously. And it showed in his preparation. His former military training was on full display as he'd ready his equipment the night before. He'd make sure the grill was clean and the charcoal was stocked. He'd soak wood chips to scatter over the coals to imbue the steaks with a hearty dose of apple wood smoke. He made his own spice rub and he was adamant about saucing the steaks, just so, on the grill so it would caramelize to a perfect lacquered finish. It was a study in preparation, in ceremony and how all those little details added up to making a big difference.
Watch, react and adapt
I remember asking my dad how he knew when the steaks were done. He would keep an eye on his watch, timing the sear on each side and turning them accordingly. But how could he tell each one was cooking equally? How did he know when it was time to start saucing? He told me you simply have to watch and react. "You can't ever walk away," he'd warn. After all, grilling over an open flame is a simple but temperamental form of cooking. You're constantly adapting—if not to the weather then to the heat of your coals or the intensity of your fire. Good grilling takes patience. Leave your meat on too long and your guests are suffering tough, dry shoe leather. Pull it off too early and you might horrify someone by letting them cut into medium-rare chicken. "You see how the meat is separating from the bone just slightly," my dad once asked me, pointing to one particular steak sizzling on the grill. "That's telling you it's ready ... you've just got to look for it."
That's the thing about grilling, a little know-how goes a long way. The same can be said about life in general. I wish my father could've been around longer, as I know there were many lessons he didn't get to share with me. Or lessons that I missed because I wasn't paying attention. But there are times, like when I'm behind a grill, that I remember all those things he was able to teach me. About barbecue, about life and about being a man.