A Hobby, a Calling: Barbecue

Our series on hobbies continues with an old favorite: the barbecue grill. Charcoal and meat seems to bring out the fanatic in some people. Robert Smith visits a group of devoted grillers.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This week, we've been visiting Americans immersed in their hobbies. For some hobbyists, it's not easy to find a time and a place for their obsessions. Take the poor barbecuers of New York City. Air quality rules, fire safety laws and just plain lack of space make it difficult for people to fire up the grill, not that they don't try. Barbecue nuts sneak onto rooftops and fire escapes and even into public spaces to stoke the flames of their desire. NPR's Robert Smith takes us to Morningside Park in Manhattan in search of the gonzo grillers.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

The hunt begins at dawn. Men, dragging Webers and hibachis behind them, emerge from the apartment buildings around the park and head on to the grass looking for the perfect spot. Evan Cameron(ph) lets me in on a little secret to a good day of grilling.

Mr. EVAN CAMERON (Barbecuer): Location, location, location and shade.

SMITH: But today, he didn't get his number-one spot, even though he got here at...

Mr. CAMERON: 7:00.

SMITH: So even at 7 AM, you didn't get the first...

Mr. CAMERON: No, I did not. No, unfortunately. I was trying, but I had to come from work. You get out here past 8:00, you're on your own pretty much. You'd better bring your own chairs and stuff like that.

SMITH: Guys have been known to sleep overnight on a picnic table at Morningside Park just to claim it in the morning. By 10:00, you can hear the sound of charcoal briquettes hitting the metal.

(Soundbite of briquettes falling into barbecue)

SMITH: By 11:00, the smell of lighter fluid fills the park.

(Soundbite of screeching metal noise)

Unidentified Man: I like fire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: I like to see the flames.

SMITH: Because it's so hard to grill in New York City, and because it's technically illegal in this park, when these men do get a spot, they go all out. Will Johnson is setting up not one but two grills, and he's going to need them.

Mr. WILL JOHNSON (Barbecuer): Let's see what's in here. We have hot dogs, ribs, steak, chicken, shish kebab, shrimp kebabs, chicken kebabs, sausages.

SMITH: You have, like, 40 pounds of food here.

Mr. JOHNSON: I got 40 pounds of chicken by itself, another 40 pounds of ribs, 120 hamburgers--yeah, the works, the works.

SMITH: Sure, he's inviting 75 friends, but that doesn't fully explain how far Johnson takes this obsession. Every bit of meat has its own spice blend and Johnson's famous marinating sauce.

Mr. JOHNSON: I'll just tell you it consists a little garlic, a little soy sauce. That's as far as I'm going to go.

SMITH: No, no, no. What are the spices? Come on.

Mr. JOHNSON: That's it. That's as far as I'm going to go.

SMITH: Come on.

Mr. JOHNSON: OK, let's put the grill together, people. Nice talking to you.

SMITH: See, the barbecue nut is an elusive and secretive creature. He--and at this park, they are mostly male--he's highly territorial, not letting anyone else touch the spatula. And competitive. The grillers sneak peeks at each other's setups, sometimes mocking their use of aluminum foil or overreliance on lighter fluid. And then there's the touchy issue of size. Because most of the barbecuers live in apartments and walk-ups, they've been forced to get these tiny grills. There's intense jealousy when someone like Daryl Rachet(ph) shows up with a oil drum turned into a barrel smoker.

Mr. DARYL RACHET (Barbecuer): Now that's the ribs turning over. That's some ribs turning over. Ahh!

SMITH: He'll do these ribs another three hours, throwing some hickory wood chips on the coals for flavor. Rachet takes the park grilling game to another level, and he seems almost saddened by the thought that some guys have to do burgers on a hibachi.

Mr. RACHET: That's not a barbecue; that's a picnic.

SMITH: Rachet lives up in the General Grant Housing Projects, and has to haul this big smoker out of his storage unit every time he wants to use it. But oddly enough, he doesn't envy the suburban house with its big patio for grilling.

Mr. RACHET: Yeah, other people can have back yards. Other people can have back yards. If you gonna come around in The Village and Harlem and you see people barbecuing on the sidewalks, see people barbecuing on the sidewalks with makeshift grills and things like that, it's the love of it. It's wanting to be with your friends cooking, eating. Everybody sees what you're doing.

SMITH: For Rachet, barbecuing isn't just about eating; it's more like a performance. He'll be standing here for the next eight hours tinkering with each rub and calibrating every sauce, tackling the logistical challenge of ribs and chicken and steak. As friends arrive hungry and leave full, the barbecue hobbyist is only looking for one thing.

Mr. RACHET: When I see somebody licking their fingers, that's what makes me feel good.

SMITH: Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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