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Brotherhood of the backyard

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I enter the backyard like the Cat in the Hat, hairy legged and bent on mischief. I carry a tray full of steaks and a pair of tongs longer than your arm. There is a splotch of what looks like dragon's blood on my shirt. It's marinade. Why? Because it makes me taste better.

At this time of year, how come so many men are so enamored with scorching meat over an open flame? Why does a smoky grill make us as happy as a cartoon character? It's not primal. It goes deeper than that.

Men like to grill because it doesn't matter if they spill. They like to grill because it reminds them of the bonfires of their youth. Men like to grill:

•  Because even middle-aged guys look good by firelight.

•  Because for days afterward, our fingers taste like baby-back ribs and our hair smells like Oktoberfest.

•  Because tongs are the only kitchen tool with an opposable thumb. With a good pair of tongs, most men could change a spark plug. Or put panties on an octopus.

•  Because grilling is best done with a cold drink in your left hand. And another one on deck.

•  Because grilling gets you out of the air-conditioning, which on long summer days leaves your leg muscles as chilled as grocery meat.

•  Because grilling gives us time for idle conversations, such as:

Wife: You know the house next to Chris and Debbie's?

Me: The one where the guy is always peeking over the fence?

Wife: Yes. Guess what they're asking?

Me: A billion-six?

Wife: More.

Me: Three trillion?

Wife: More.

•  Because a grill is like a jukebox of summer hits. The sound of a steak sizzling. A bratwurst zippering itself open. These sounds inspire us on every level. The way birdsong inspired Bach.

•  Because it's the only way men will eat vegetables.

•  Because the art of grilling runs through families like freckles, Roman noses or a taste for gin.

•  Because in the evening, the mountains surrounding L.A. turn purple, then black, and the moon moves through the trees as if looking for lost children. Hey, what's that rustling in the bushes? An 800-pound raccoon? The neighborhood's full of them.

•  Because in the backyard, you can't hear the TV.

•  Because in the backyard, you can't hear the phone.

•  Because it takes the kids 2 minutes, 55 seconds to realize that you've left the house and to hunt you down.

•  Because in the name of seeing whether it's done, you can lop off a chunk of charred sirloin and pop it into your mouth.

•  Because the first bite of flank steak, properly marinated, is tastier than a wedding kiss.

•  Because grilling lets you spend quality time with the kids:

Boy: Dad?

Me: Huh?

Boy: Can I have some money?

Me: Huh?

Boy: Can I have some money?

Me: I'm sorry, my English … it's not so good.

Boy: Dad, can I have some money?

Me: Huh?

Boy: Can I have some money?

•  Because grilling is a good time to ponder life's questions: What is love? How much does it cost? When will Costco carry it?

•  Because it also gives us time to ponder life's injustices: Why did Cadillac kill the Eldorado? When will Hack Wilson make the Hall of Fame?

•  Because grilled meat sends up smoke signals — a lost art, at least in our little suburb of privilege and petty jealousies. Tonight the prevailing winds blow teriyaki smoke across the neighbors' pool, where their dog lies plotting my murder.

•  Because the smoke also blows across the freeway to a nearby hospital, where the scent of crisped meat gives hope to all those dining on boiled chicken that tastes like a phone book. "Hurry home," the smoke says. "The grill is ready."


Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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