Confessions of a Wannabe Grill Master

an essay by the acclaimed barbecue wizard grill owner and author BJ Hollars

BJ Hollars |

I’ve only ever burned my eyebrows off once, which I suppose makes me some kind of expert.

I was living in Alabama then (a land where grills outnumber people 2 to 1), and as I peered past the grates and into the burners, my finger bypassed my brain and found its way to the red starter button.

As I’ve mentioned it was a red starter button, which, in retrospect, I imagine was meant to loosely translate to: Fire! Warning! Keep your head out of there! Instead, I translated it to mean Hot dogs! And yes, while there were indeed hot dogs that night, there were also fewer eyebrows.

Long story short: nobody wanted to kiss the cook, I assure you.

While I may talk a good grilling game, the talk is about all I’m good at (see: previous anecdote). To put it another way, I serve up a lot more bull than cow. But when attempting to do anything, mastering the language of the subculture always proves to be key.

Which is why when called upon to watch football with friends, I always sprinkle in one of three phrases – “Watch the backfield!”, “What do you mean ‘intentional grounding’?”, “Go Pack!” – none of which mean anything to me.

But it’s not important that the phrases mean anything, just that I know I need to say them to confirm my “expertise.”

When I offer my family a tray of mostly charred meats, I always do so with a flourish. “Dinner,” I say grandly, “has been served.”

The same holds true for grilling. I’ve found that when offered with confidence, any number of phrases can bolster one’s subpar grilling skills. And so, when my grilling brethren and I peer down into the hypnotic blue burn of the propane, I often open with: “Let me tell you a bit about these brines…”

Then, because I know nothing of brines, I shoot a finger to a backyard bush and cry, “Hey! Isn’t that an albino squirrel?”

When informed that there is no albino squirrel in our presence (“B.J., you’re just pointing to a bush,”), I grin sheepishly, then serve the naysayer his grass-fed burger.

Key phrase: “grass-fed” (whatever that means…)

Fooling one’s friends is one thing, though I’ve found it far harder to fool one’s wife. These days, when I shout, “Honey, can you get me the dry rub and the deckle?” she usually replies, “Honey, you’re just making up words.”

I remind her that’s mostly what I do for a living, to which she mumbles something which – being mindful of our general audience – I will not repeat here. But let me tell you, it’s good to be king, even if I am the king of, shall we say, bull bowels.

It’s the price I pay for doing what I love – or at least what I love in theory. Much like baseball (which I can also only love in theory; mainly, because any sport that requires the fans to stretch is clearly taking too long) – grilling, too, allows participants to enjoy a bit of leisure, while feeling as if they’re performing some act of great import.

In truth, about 90 percent of grilling is trying to stay awake (the same goes for Twins games), though this sedentary activity never prevents me from dramatizing my efforts. When I offer my family a tray of mostly charred meats, I always do so with a flourish. “Dinner,” I say grandly, “has been served.”

By dinner’s end, when I try the ol’ “Well, honey, I cooked, so I guess you’re on dish duty,” a pair of eyes as fiery as propane makes it clear to me that I did not, in fact cook – I “grilled” – and as a result, I’m probably well-rested enough to manage the dishes.

This message is conveyed without a single word passing between us – proof of our finely honed communication skills, the keystone to any strong marriage.

So why do I do it? Why do I continue the charade that is “B.J. Hollars: Grill Master Extraordinaire”?

I do it for the same reason we all do the things we love: because we love them. Nobody ever said we have to be good at that which we enjoy (see: B.J. Hollars’ Little League statistics), and besides, half the fun of having fun is being able to laugh at your failures (see: B.J. Hollars’ rib roast).

But the other half of it is that there’s a chance – modest, as it may be – that I won’t always be a fraud in front of the flames. Maybe one day I’ll don the apron and reach for the tongs and the grilling gods will smile down. Maybe one day I’ll learn what a brine is, what a deckle is, and that smoke and mirrors (“Albino squirrel!”) are no substitute for a well-smoked meat.

I am reminded of the old chestnut, “Fake it until you make it,” and also: “And if you don’t make it, just try faking it harder.” Yet the truth often lost in these phrases is that if you do anything long enough, you’re bound to get better, or at least you’re unlikely to get any worse. At least that’s what I tell myself to help me sleep at night.

Come on over some time; I’ll fire up the grill. I hope you like your eyebrows extra crispy.

B.J. Hollars is an assistant professor of creative writing at UW-Eau Claire, as well as an award-winning author. His next book, Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction, will be published this fall.