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Life Lessons

Grilling Is Slowly, So Slowly, Teaching Me How To Be Patient

Canada - Montreal circa 1959, man grilling, BBQ with the family
Erich Andres/United Archives via Getty Images

I am not a patient person, historically. I can exhibit patience when it suits me, but it is not my preferred state. When we were planning this website in the pits of the 2020 quarantine era, every day that passed without the "we're done!" Slack message was a day that I spent in agony. The last few hours before a major video game release are torturous for me, as I sit at my computer constantly staring at the clock as it inches forward. This is not my best trait, nor is it one that I have worked on particularly hard to change, but it's important context for explaining my newfound love of grilling.

I lived in New York City for 16 years and a few days, from the late summer of my 18th birthday up through August of this very year. In that time, I lived a New York lifestyle, in various New York apartments. This is to say, I never had a lot of room, and I never had an outdoor space to call my own. When looking at houses in Philadelphia ahead of my move, that was my number one priority, and it wasn't close. (My partner was much more pragmatic, looking for good appliances, space for Rosco the rambunctious dog to run around, and an office room for each of us.) The main reason I wanted an outdoor space was to buy a grill, learn to use said grill, and then utilize that grill in all manner of warm weather.

And hey, wouldn't you know, we found exactly the type of house we wanted, with a little concrete lot of a backyard-patio-grilling space. It's not big, but it's big enough to have a grill and a little outdoor table, which is just about perfect. Here, you can take a look at the photo I excitedly took when we first moved into the house:

Luis's new backyard lot, with a table, bike, folded up rug, mat, and cooler. It's a mess.
Ignore the dirt on the table, we cleaned it once we bought a hose.Luis Paez-Pumar

I didn't even wait to settle in before I ordered a little kettle grill and all the necessary accoutrements to make my first true grilling experience a success. After doing some research, I settled on a Weber grill, because it was both charcoal (I wanted the smokiness, as opposed to the gas flavor, which is fine, too, but maybe that'll be the next grill for convenience's sake) and it was small enough to not be overwhelming or too expensive. I had grilled before, of course; my apartment complex in Miami growing up had little communal grills, and my dad put me in charge of making steak, corn, and bacon-wrapped asparagus on his grill the last time I visited him in Medellin. I love the taste of grilled food, especially when it comes to vegetables; a grilled tomato just hits different, and better. But I had never had a grill to call my own, to take care of and clean and use at my discretion. This little blue boy thrilled me, even as I struggled to put it together on an extremely hot September Saturday.

To go back to the patience bit above, though, I didn't really realize how much of grilling is just ... waiting. Using a chimney starter, I throw my charcoal on top of lit lighter cubes, then I have to wait for everything to catch fire and heat up. After that, I have to wait once again after pouring the fired-up charcoal on top of the remaining charcoal on the grill grates. During that time, I was finishing the prep of the vegetables, making sure I had all my estimated times written on a Post-It note that I put up on the glass door, and also drinking a beer. You have to drink a beer while grilling, or so I've been told. Mostly, though, I was just waiting, anxious to get started. Finally, after what feels like an eternity, but is actually probably just 45 minutes, I can start grilling.

The first attempt at using the grill went swimmingly. I made cheeseburgers for myself, and a bunch of grilled veggies for both my partner (who is pescatarian) and I. Everything came out fantastic, with a nice char on the peppers and onions and corn on the cob. (Well, not everything was a hit; I tried grilling some broccoli in a little veggie basket, and they were somehow too charred and undercooked.) I felt like a god, especially because I consider myself a recipe cook; I can make most recipes if I follow them to a T, but any time improvisation and judging by sight comes into play, I fall into shambles.

This is exactly what happened the second time I used the grill, when my lack of patience and misguided decision-making led me astray. This time, I was grilling at night, and the light setup in our backyard is not the best. In twilight darkness, with just a little wall lamp to help, I tried to grill some new things. I had planned to cook a salmon for my partner on the grill, and then sear a steak for myself after throwing it in the oven to bring up to temperature. (This is the "reverse sear" method, and I swear by it for thick steaks, like these Costco New York strips.) The problem was that I cut corners in order to shrink my grilling time, since it was dark and I was grumpy from hunger. My thought process was that I was already an expert, having completed exactly one successful grilling endeavor, and so I could be more aggressive.

This backfired, and it would have been hilarious if I hadn't felt soul-crushing disappointment. I didn't give the charcoal enough time to fully light in the chimney starter, which led to a very weak fire in the middle of the grill, as opposed to a strong flame throughout. I also had not taken out the ash catcher at the bottom and emptied it; I figured I had enough room in there and it would have added like five minutes to my cooking time. Unacceptable! Except the ash catcher was so full that it was blocking the vents under the grill, causing my limp fire issues.

Somehow, the onions and peppers I chose to grill came out fine, if not as well as the first time. The broccoli this time around, having learned some lessons, was actually edible. But the fire was just too weak to sear my steak properly, even as I tried to game the system by dumping butter on top so that it would melt, fall into the flame, and spark the fire. I ended up burning the steak pretty badly, and though the inside was fine, it was a bummer of a meal. The salmon I had so carefully prepared ... well, I didn't even bother to grill it, choosing instead to go back inside and, defeated, cook it in a pan like a rube.

It may not sound like it, but to a cook with very little confidence, this was an abject disaster. My self-esteem as a grillmaster was completely shot after just two attempts at it. With the weather looking like it would turn soon, I figured I would just call it a year on grilling and try again in the spring. (I am not ever going to be a cold-weather grilling lunatic. I am from Venezuela via Miami; the cold is my enemy.)

However, something that goes hand in hand with being impatient is also being stubborn, and I would not let this failure ruin my grilling dreams. So, despite my partner's wariness, I decided to give it one more shot, with the same items. This was yet another night cook, and it was a bit chillier than last time, but I had learned from my mistakes. I figured if I just wait for the charcoal to light up, and I just clean out the ash catcher, I could solve my mistakes. And so I fired up the grill again, waited a total hour for the coal to become burning hot over an empty ash catcher, and went at it again. This time, I can happily say, was an unabashed success.

The peppers were tender and charred. The onions had a nice sweetness mixed with smokiness. The broccoli! Third try was the best try—they came out perfect. And I decided to cook the salmon first, as my steak only needed two or three minutes on the grill to sear. The fish came out better than any fish I have ever cooked in my life; I saw the glorious light of a job well done with one test bite.

But it was the steak that was the star. Even as the fire died out a bit by the time I got around to it, I came prepared with my butter trick, only using less butter to not overcook the crust. On it went onto the fire, flipping after 90 seconds, and out came a beautiful steak that I was very proud of. It was, pretty handily, the best steak I've ever cooked for myself, and I felt the rush of victorious glee, so much so that I just giggled all throughout eating it. At that moment, I felt like I could do whatever I wanted on the grill; perhaps I would try a low and slow cook next, or at the very least broaden my horizons on the vegetables I chose to cook. Hell, maybe I'd even try to grill my mortal enemy, chicken. (I am a horrendous chicken cook; I can never get it the right temperature, often overcooking it to an almost inedible state.)

With a newfound swagger came a sadness, as soon after this triumph, the grill went into the corner of the patio for the next few cold, dark months. I keep hoping that we get a randomly sunny 60-degree weekend day, just so that I can make this happen again. Against my better judgement and internal anxieties, I learned a lot from two successful grilling attempts, but more so from the one failure. I'm still not a patient person, of course; that won't change just from a month of grilling. But I have learned that some things really do require a steady resolve and the ability to just fucking wait as long as is needed. I hope this is a lesson I don't forget over the winter, because the second the weather turns into glorious warmth, I will be out there again. If I do forget it, though, the grill will remind me with a swift brutality, and for that, I am grateful for this new hobby. Here's hoping there are less burnt vegetables and steaks along the way, though.

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