Woodsmoke, burning fat,
Meat juices hiss and sizzle;
Ancient urge sated.
Barbecuing is not big in England; or at least, it wasn't during my 1970s childhood.
But, by happy accident, it became a central part of my annual holidays as a boy.
For most of my childhood, we holidayed in the same place, a secluded farm outside a tiny village in the middle of Exmoor, a wild National Park in the south-west of England. We always went 'camping' - although, after the first few years, usually in a caravan rented from the farmer, rather than a tent. My father's favoured leisure activity was fly-fishing, although it wasn't a great de-stresser for him since he wasn't very good at it. One day, wading in the shallow stream (actually the River Barle) that ran beside the farm, he stubbed his toe painfully on something. Realising that the offending object had been rather more substantial and more sharply edged than the flat stones that covered the river-bed, he vowed - with a single-minded vengefulness of the sort now personified by Homer Simpson - to rediscover and uproot it. We located it fairly easily, and, since the water at this point was less than a foot deep, my brother and I undertook the mission of excavating it, as a sort of sacrificial offering to our grumpy dad. It took a fair bit of digging out, since it proved to be a large flat piece of metal sheet, about a third of an inch thick and about two foot wide and nearly four foot long. It was pretty heavy, and was well buried in the silt and stones of the riverbed, but after an hour or so we wrestled it free and carried it triumphantly back to our parents.
The metal sheet was uncannily flat and smooth, and - after a bit of scrubbing - surprisingly clean and unrusted. It was, in fact, ideal to use as a hotplate above a large open fire.
And so this became our primary means of cooking on every summer holiday. Previously, we had occasionally cooked on an open fire, but, not having a grill to keep food out of the flames, we'd been limited to wrapping potatoes and such in aluminium foil to bake them in the embers, or spearing sausages precariously on the end of sharpened twigs to roast them over the flames. Uneven cooking, excessive blackening, and frequent dropping of things into the fire invariably ensued. It was fun, but it was a rather laborious means of producing not particularly good food. (Yes, I suppose we could have purchased grill forks or purpose-cut wooden barbecue skewers; but we were a thrifty family. We always began our cook-outs by foraging for suitable sticks, and then spending several minutes whittling them to a point with a small penknife.) I don't believe we would have got into the habit of cooking all of our meals on an open fire but for that fortuitous discovery of the big iron plate.
We used to hide it in the underbrush near our campsite when we left - our farewell ritual - and root it out again on our return the following year (sometimes we visited at Easter as well as in the summer, so there might have been around 15 trips in all), apparently unused by anyone else in the interim.
This was how I discovered the atavistic thrill of cooking outdoors, on an open fire (ideally with wood you've collected for yourself; buying mass-produced charcoal briquettes seems such a cheat). It's not something I've often been able to indulge subsequently, either in the UK or in China. In the US, however, every backyard seems to have a barbecue (my current host's has five!). And I have arrived in the prime barbecuing season. Hmm, what's that smell?