There is no smell I know so closely tied to happy memories as the smell of a charcoal grill. A charcoal grill smells like summer, like freedom, like bare feet running through the grass, like lightning bugs and kickball in the dark. The smokey warmth of a charcoal grill smells like my childhood.
My dad manned the grill in our house growing, as I suppose many dads do. He grilled brats and burgers and barbecue chicken. As we got older, and more open to different flavors, he grilled lemon-pepper pork chops and marinated steak. Late in the afternoon, he’d slide on his L.L.Bean boat shoes and head out to the patio to start the coals. He’d take a radio and a large tumbler of Diet Pepsi and camp out in the backyard. He would run back inside for more cola or a clean pair of tongs and the scent of charcoal would waft off his clothes and up the stairs to my bedroom.
I would stop reading or playing and close my eyes. Breathing deeply, I felt safe, loved. Because in our house, making food for someone is the sincerest form of love.
My backyard is different now, but the grill is the same – a Weber Smokey Joe. Chef Boyfriend uses fancier charcoal but the smell is ultimately the same. While I fix a salad or prep vegetables inside, the smell of the grill floats into the house and I am immediately eight years old, laying on my bed with a Boxcar Children book in hand. One whiff of charcoal smoke and it’s early August and I’m counting down the days until school starts, half excited, half sad. The smell of burgers or chicken or bratwurst makes me long for my mom’s pasta salad and big chunks of watermelon and homemade ice cream.
My current next door neighbors say they can tell when Chef Boyfriend is grilling because he uses applewood or mesquite chips. They sit out on their patio and we talk over the bushes. I’m always two sentences away from inviting them over for flank steak and wine, but I didn’t grow up in that sort of neighborhood and I’m not that kind of neighbor. Besides, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to share my grill smells with them. They’re my scents and my memories and grilling seems too sacred to share with people I don’t really know.
When Chef Boyfriend grills, it’s like a dance. Precise movements. He is partners with the meat, knows where on the grill to place it, when to turn it, when to leave it alone. He works with the meat, honors the meat. He walks from the grill to our patio table and drinks his beer. He is patient. He knows when to wait, when to be still. It’s beautiful. He, like generations before him, can cook over fire.
I watch his forearms. The muscles contracting when he reaches for tongs, when he moves the chicken from the hot side to the cooler side of the grill. He grills barefoot. He is brave. Trusts himself enough to keep coals in the grill.
And when he’s done? The chicken skin is crispy, charred perfectly. Pork chops have crosshatch grill marks. They taste like summer even though it’s April. Asparagus tastes better. Zucchini tastes better. Peaches take on the taste of ambrosia. He can cook. He can grill and it’s beautiful. It’s something to be thankful for. To look forward to. To relish.
He comes into the house, smelling faintly of smoke, of applewood chips and smiles. He is happiest cooking for us. When customer demands and crazy substitutions aren’t altering his vision. When he’s allowed total creative control.
Maybe that’s why my dad liked grilling so much. In a house full of people demanding his attention, pulling him in every direction, he was finally allowed total control over the barbecue chicken. Those were his burgers. His steak.
We finish dinner, bones scraped into the trash, the counters wiped down, dishes safely tucked into the dishwasher. We finish our wine on the couch and the dog tucks her head into Chef Boyfriend’s shirt. She finds comfort in the smoke too. I fall asleep a few sips of wine short of finishing. Content. Wrapped in the memories of summer nights and burger dinners.
Smoke clings to the tips of his hair, in his beard. I smell it when I stir at 3am on a Saturday morning and smile sleepily. Again, the smell reminds me I am safe, loved. Someone grills for me.