Gentlemen, take your tongs: barbecuing is back

John Barilaro calls it Freedom Day, Gladys Berejiklian calls it Staged Reopening Day, and I call it Barbecue Day. It’s October 11, or more likely the Saturday afternoon that follows, when the men of Sydney will again express their wild spirit in front of a small, but admiring, audience of other men.

The barbeque is soon to be back in yards across NSW.Credit:Virginia Star

Oh, I know women barbecue, but their reason for barbecuing is different. They do it with the aim of cooking food in a superior manner.

We do it for psycho-sexual reasons. Why else would the cooking implements be so large?

Forget the tiny measuring spoons, paring knives and vegetable peelers of indoor cooking. They’re for girls. Outdoors you need huge forks, the length of your forearm; giant egg slices, as if designed to flip a few dinosaur eggs; and enormous tongs suitable for removing nuclear rods from a collapsing reactor.

This is cooking equipment with a subtext, and the subtext is: “Mate, don’t bother me, I’m involved in dangerous work.”

Mind you, it is dangerous work. A sausage is just a time bomb of fat. The term “mystery bag” not only refers to the contents of the snag, but to the lingering uncertainty as to the moment when it will explode, igniting a blaze similar to that which destroyed Dresden in 1945.

In truth, the timing of the explosion is predictable: it’s the minute your back is turned. Whip in to fetch an extra beer and you’ll return to the blackened landscape of nuclear winter.

That’s where the other men come in. The Council of Elders, each member cradling a beer as they watch you work, is there to give constant advice. When it comes to steak, it seems, everyone is a stakeholder.

It starts with lighting the thing, especially if you are using charcoal. The number of fire starters to be used ranges from zero to half a dozen. Take the advice of some people and the place will soon smell like the forecourt of your nearest petrol station.

Next come the cooking tips. “Oh, I wouldn’t leave the barbecue now.” Or: “You really need to turn those sausages now.” Or: “You are turning the chops too often”. Or, worst of all: “Why don’t you give me the tongs? You should go and help with the salad.”

One of the few upsides of COVID-19 is the men of Australia have been able to turn their sausages whenever they damn well please.

“I think all the charcoal just adds to the flavour.”

Yet there are advantages to barbecuing in front of an audience. You can demonstrate your self-mastery by turning the steaks just once, rejecting the urge to peek, and instead showing faith in your own judgment.

You can express your hipster spirit by lining up a whole army of haloumi soldiers, there on the grill, perhaps with a fan of soaked sweetcorn cobs, still in their natural overcoats, blackening on the flames.

And you can prove your sporting prowess by nicking in to turn the snags, ignoring the intensity of the flames.

Suddenly your senses are alive, in a way that cannot be achieved with indoor cooking. There’s the smoke of the fire, billowing straight into your face; the geyser of fat arching elegantly from the hottest snag; and the acrid smell that comes when you burn off your own eyebrows.

Murphy’s Law, in other words, has a firm grip on the barbecue.

If using gas, the likelihood the bottle will run out just before the guests arrive rises according to the number of guests who have been invited. Due to COVID-19 limits, you just might be spared a mid-afternoon trip to the local servo.

And if using charcoal, the barbecue is always too hot when you start cooking – however early you light the thing. As someone will inevitably say, “You should have lit it earlier.”

Still, it’s worth it. This, after all, is a ritual that goes back to the dawn of time: a man, a fire, and some very badly burnt meat. And there’s always the question: “How would you like your meat cooked?” The options being: “Burnt, bloody burnt or totally incinerated?”

If there was ever an Official Australia BBQ Recipe Book the cooking time for every recipe would be the same: Ten minutes in the marinade, ten minutes on the grill, and then 45 minutes helping the local fire brigade put out the flaming pergola.

Despite it all, in the end the food is served. It tastes better because you are eating outdoors. The Council of Elders, so vociferous in its earlier criticism of your tong technique, gives itself over to contented chewing.

There may even by the odd compliment. “I think all the charcoal just adds to the flavour”.

After you eat, you clean up, and then gather around the barbecue for a final beer.

At which point, all those present – both men and women – will make the same observation. “Hey, look at the charcoal. It would be perfect if we were to barbecue right now.”

If I were you, I’d light yours first thing tomorrow.

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