By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, July 27, 1946.
“A Surprise?” inquired Jimmie Frise.
“Yes, sir, a real surprise.” I assured him heartily, as I unwrapped the bundles.
“Well, it will take something to surprise me,” sighed Jim gloomily. “This summer bachelor stuff is all right when you are young. But when you get to be our age, I don’t think a man should be abandoned alone in the city by his family.”
“We’ll get along all right,” I asserted, as I drew from the larger carton the upper works of the charcoal garden barbecue outfit.
“What the heck’s that?” demanded Jim.
“You’ll see in a minute,” I gloated.
“What gets me about this summer bachelor business,” went on Jim grumpily, “is the eating. When you are in your thirties you can eat at any old neighborhood restaurant, Chinese, Greek, or just nice old ladies running a neighborhood Tea Shoppey.”
I lifted from the carton the legs and substructure of the charcoal garden grill.
“What IS this?” insisted Jim, leaning out from his garden chair and inspecting the black tin objects.
“Go ahead, go ahead,” I suggested. “Tell around at the neighborhood quick-and dirties.”
“Well, I was saying,” said Jim, still inspecting what I was pulling out of the carton with mystified interest, “I don’t think men of our age are supposed to be left alone in the city during the summer. We need to be taken care of. We ought to be properly fed…”
I drew triumphantly from the carton the wire grill, the broiler part of the garden barbecue outfit.
“Holy smoke,” cried Jim, leaping up. “What have you got here?”
I hastily set the legs into the charcoal stove part of the outfit and then laid the heavy steel wire grill on top of all.
“Jim,” I announced, “it’s a charcoal broiler, a charcoal barbecue for the garden. I’ve been reading all about them in those home and garden magazines. So I got one.”
“What do you do with it?” asked Jim expectantly.
“Look,” I said, “We fill this deep pan with charcoal. See the little draught holes underneath and along the sides? Well, we get a red hot bed of charcoal in that. Then we lay two beautiful thick juicy steaks on top. And then…”
“Enough, enough!” cried Jim. “When? When do we try it out?”
“Now,” I stated, “This very minute. In the house I’ve got a bag of charcoal. In the house I’ve got two of the slickest big porterhouse steaks with the tails cut off. In one hour from now…”
“Hey, let’s get going,” exclaimed Jimmie, drooling. “How do we fasten that thing together, solidly…”
“Now, just a second, son,” I cautioned him. “We’ve got lots of time. Run in to the top kitchen drawer and get a pair of pliers and a screw driver.”
A Bit of Ceremony
So, in a matter of 10 minutes, we had the barbecue broiler fastened securely together. In another 10 minutes, we had the card table out. In another 10 minutes, I had opened the next parcel, which contained a chef’s hat and white pants.
“What’s all this!” protested Jim anxiously.
“Now, Jim,” I reasoned, “don’t get into such a fuss. This garden cookery is an art. I read all about it in the magazines. You’ve got to dress the part. You’ve got to make a bit of a ceremony out of it…”
“Aw, ceremony,” growled Jim. “If you knew how hungry I am. If you knew how I feel about those two steaks. How thick are they?”
“Look, relax,” I pleaded. “Sit down in that chair there. Relax. This is my party. This is my surprise.”
“How thick?” repeated Jim.
“Two … inches … thick!” I said slowly.
“And what else is there?” demanded Jim, relaxing heavily into the garden chair.
“Salad,” I said, “I bought a ready-made green salad and it’s in there, in the kitchen, in the covered pot, to keep it crisp. And there’s coffee.”
“No bread?” said Jim.
“You’ll have no room for bread when you face that steak,” I informed him, as I put on the white pants and the chef’s hat. From behind the kitchen door, I got one of the family aprons.
“Get the fire on, get the fire on,” muttered Jim in the chair.
“Look, the evening has just begun,” I said. “Relax and watch. The magazine laid emphasis on the fact that eating a charcoal broiled steak in the garden was a pleasure for all. It was a pleasure for the host -that’s me – to prepare it. It was a pleasure for the guests to watch it. That’s you.”
At which moment, our neighbor, with his newspaper, came out with that sort of burping manner that a summer bachelor adopts after he has just eaten a measly supper of corn flakes and milk in his kitchen.
“Well, well, well,” he called across the fence, sizing up my chef’s hat and get-up.
“A little garden barbecue,” I explained to him.
“Hmmff,” he said, setting himself with his paper.
“Full of his evening corn flakes,” I murmured to Jim.
The next item on the agenda was preparing the fire. I went in and unwrapped the two big steaks. They were superb. Beautiful deep red, with little flecks of fat through the lean. The fat mellow white. They were a good two inches thick.
I left them on the table where Rusty, Jim’s Irish water spaniel, couldn’t reach them; and carried the charcoal bag out to the garden. I made a small kindling bed of paper and small sticks, and poured the charcoal over it. From underneath, I ignited the paper. In a moment, the kindling caught, and in no time at all the fire had taken hold of the adjoining chunks of charcoal. And it began to spread rapidly.
“Jim,” I commanded, “go in and put the coffee pot on.”
“How long will it take to broil them?” Jim asked.
“Get the coffee started,” I ordered,
By the time he had returned the brazier was a humming mass of bluish flames from the charcoal, with a hint of the cherry red that was to come.
Whetting the Appetite
Jim came and watched as the charcoal slowly grew in fury. I didn’t fan it. The holes underneath and along the sides of the pan drew all the pressure needed for a steadily mounting glow.
“Put them on now?” asked Jim.
“Sit down,” I explained. “You’re the audience. You should be relaxed and enjoying the show.”
I went in and inspected the steaks. I trimmed off almost all the fat, although the butcher, when he trimmed off the porterhouse tails for me, had taken most of the fat. But the instructions I had read said that very little fat should be left on.
I lifted the lid of the salad pot and the salad was crisp and cold. I carried out the plates and cups.
“It’s bright red now,” warned Jim.
I inspected the charcoal.
“You’ve got to let a little sort of gray film come on the top of the red, before it’s perfect for broiling,” l informed him.
Jim swallowed eagerly.
“Jim,” I announced, “a steak broiled over charcoal is unparalleled in the realm of food. No other kind of cooking can even remotely compare with it.”
“Harrummph,” said the neighbor next door, shaking his newspaper testily and shifting his position away from us.
So I talked lower.
“There is something about charcoal,” I went on, “that seems to transmit a special flavor, a special zest, to the taste of the meat.”
“Aw, for Pete’s sake,” groaned Jim.
“It cooks the steak,” I explained further “without changing the lovely rare quality of the fibres. It has a kind of charred crust on the outside and inside …”
“Listen,” barked Jim, “are you going to cook the steaks or are you going to gas all night …?”
I examined the fire. The bed of cherry red charcoal was a solid bank of shimmering, quivering coals five inches deep. And on top, I could detect the first faint shadow of a gray film…
I hopped smartly into the kitchen and got the two huge steaks. One draped over each hand, I marched down the back steps.
The neighbor, squinting, I could see, around the corner of his newspaper, gave the paper another shake and turned farther away than ever.
Jim stood up as the steaks passed him, the way he would stand up for royalty. He came and watched me as I laid each steak, with the aid of the big fork that came with the outfit, on top of the grill.
As I set it on the sizzling hot grill, a blare of flame leaped up from the charcoal. This was the fat instantly melting and taking fire. Those pure fat flames seared the meat.
“Now you see,” I explained, as the aroma lifted around us, “why they cut off nearly all the fat. You don’t want too much flame…”
“Turn them over, turn them over,” cried Jim, anxiously.
“Stand back, Jim,” I warned. “Sit down. Relax. I am doing this job.”
“But turn them,” begged Jim, sitting down. “Turn them quickly to seal both sides…”
“You couldn’t be more wrong if you tried,” I informed him, as I stood guard with the fork.
“You turn a steak only once when you are broiling it! Only once! You leave those steaks over the charcoal until you can see the transparent bubbles of fat forming on the raw top. THEN you turn them. But just once.”
Jim was scrunching down in the chair to peek under the grill.
“But,” he expostulated, “they’ll be black as soot on the bottom…”
“They’ll have a black crust on both sides, my boy,” I assured him. “And that’s the way they should be.”
Jim got out of his chair.
“Sit down,” I warned.
“I just want to get down wind from them,” explained Jim, “so I won’t waste any of that aroma.”
He got down wind from the broiler and stood, his head back, slowly breathing in the almost indescribably heavenly odor of the broiling steaks.
The neighbor was down wind too, and as I looked at Jim, I could see the neighbor slowly shifting and fanning his newspaper so as to waft as much as possible of it his way. Rusty, Jim’s spaniel, got down wind too and started softly whining and whimpering. Two cats came from different directions and sat on the fences at a respectful distance.
“Don’t you salt them?” asked Jim earnestly.
“Never,” I informed him. “Salt would draw the juices. You salt them when I put them on the plate.”
The neighbor got up and pretended to be studying the perennials along the fence. I could easily see that what he was really doing was shifting his position to get into the best breeze to smell that ravishing odor.
“Smells good?” I called to him friendly.
“Eh?” he said, glancing up. “Oh, yeah. That’s a nice smell…”
Jim shifted, so as to stand between the steaks and the neighbor. He didn’t want to share the perfume any more than he could help.
“Can’t you see transparent bubbles yet?” Jim demanded anxiously.
As a matter of fact, I could. The sizzling steaks were crisp around the edges and you could observe small bubbles and grains of fat beginning to ooze up through the red surface.
“Get the coffee, and the salad, Jim,” I announced.
Jim went and brought the coffee pot and the tin pot containing the green salad.
“Whooeeeee!” went a siren unexpectedly close.
“Hello?” said Jim.
“WHHOOOOEEEEEE!” screamed the siren, and we could hear the screech of giant tires.
“WHHOOOOEEEE!” whooped the siren, and out the side drive, we could see the fire reels coming to a furious stop.
“Fire!” yelled the neighbor, leaping up and heading out the drive.
“See what it is, Jim,” I ordered angrily, for the steaks were just ready to turn.
Jim laid down the coffee and salad and ran out the drive.
“It’s just across the street,” he yelled back. “The minister’s house, I think …!”
I took an instant and turned the steaks. I set them true on the grill. There was another burst of blaze as the released fat seared up under the meat.
Then I too ran out the drive. For you can’t have a fire almost next door without taking a neighborly interest.
It WAS the minister’s house. As a matter of fact, all it was was the ironing board on fire in the kitchen. The minister is a summer bachelor too, and he was trying to iron those little white tabs ministers wear under their chins when they are dressed up for the pulpit. He had laid the electric iron down for a minute…
Without a Trace
All the neighborhood crowded around and it took five minutes to express the proper condolences to our good friend. And then Jim and I broke away and hurried across to the garden.
“They’ll be just about done,” I assured.
Jim was a little ahead of me as we rounded the corner of the house.
He stopped so suddenly I bumped into him.
“Gone!” he whispered.
“GONE!” he roared.
The brazier stood there, redly, grayly glowing.
The chairs, the table, with the coffee pot, the salad pot, everything, just as we had left it.
But the two steaks, the TWO steaks, the great succulent, sweet smelling porterhouse steaks, were gone.
I whipped around to look for Rusty, Rusty was still across the road with the firemen.
I whipped the other way and looked over the fence.
The neighbor was gone. His chair was there. The newspaper lay on the grass, where he had flung it.
“Jim,” I gritted.
We strode out and looked across at the crowd around the fire reels.
“Go and see if he’s at the back with the minister,” I commanded.
Jim hurried across the road.
I went and made a rapid search of the hedges, the shrubbery. There were no footprints, no traces.
The two cats still sat, eyes closed, purring on the distant fences.
I heard Jim’s footsteps returning.
“No sign of him over there,” said Jim in a low voice.
I snatched off my chef’s hat. I yanked off the apron.
“What are you going to do?” inquired Jim hastily.
“I’m going in and ask him for our steaks!” I hissed.
“You can’t do that…” protested Jim. “You can’t accuse a man of stealing…”
“He’s got ’em,” I gritted. “He’s got ’em! Did you see the way he was sniffing and trembling when I was cooking them…?”
“Go and rap on his door,” said Jim, “and merely ask him if he saw anybody around the garden…”
I did so. I rapped. I rang. Nobody answered. The door was open and I was tempted to tiptoe in. I called. I rang and rapped.
I stuck my nose in the doorway and sniffed.
But even if there were any telltale odor, I had lost the power to smell it from standing over those steaks for so long.
“Let’s sit and wait,” suggested Jim, when I came back.
“It’s too late to buy another couple of steaks,” I reflected.
So we sat and waited. No sign of the neighbor.
Dusk came. Jim and I nibbled the salad. We had a cup of coolish coffee.
Dark fell. No sign of the neighbor.
“Well,” said Jim at length, “I’m starved. I’m simply weak from starvation. So let’s…”
So we went up to the nearest neighborhood quick-and-dirty and had fried eggs and bacon.
And when we got back home, the neighbor’s house was all closed up, chair folded away, newspaper picked up, and a soft low light glowing in an upstairs bedroom.
But mind you; it is purely circumstantial.
Editor’s Note: Backyard barbeques were a new invention after World War Two, hence Jim not knowing what it was. Of course, cooking over fire or charcoal was nothing new, nor was barbeque in general. But up until then, barbeques were usually fixed things, that you would do at campsites or picnics. The idea of a small, portable barbeque that you could have in your backyard was new.