Days of Pyromania Are Past, but Charcoal Chimney's Hot

I had to admit to a certain initial sympathy with the Barbecue Industry Assn., whose leaders recently got up on their hind legs about the South Coast Air Quality Management District's proposed ban on the sale of charcoal lighter fluid. Life without the stuff, I thought, was going to be a lot less colorful.

Still, the AQMD folks say the fluid is responsible for about four tons of pollutants per summertime weekend day in the Los Angeles Basin, the result of up to 5,400 gallons of the volatile stuff being squirted over charcoal briquettes by the Southland's unstoppable barbecue chefs.

The L.A. Basin is, after all, America's largest back-yard barbecue market. Yes, even bigger than Texas, where setting huge hunks of cow on fire is the official state sport.

So the AQMD has said retailers have to start phasing out the fluid so a total ban can begin Jan. 1. Anybody caught selling starter fluid after that date can get walloped with a $25,000 fine.

At first, this sounded like pretty horrible news. I'm not exactly an avid barbecuer, but I love getting invited to barbecue feasts. And I really love throwing a match into the barbecue after the coals have been drenched with starter fluid.

There are few things more satisfying--especially on the Fourth of July, when such things as fire and explosions are considered patriotic--than watching that orange fireball launch skyward with a chest-rattling ka-WHUMP!

If I couldn't get a job as a gunner's mate on the battleship Missouri, I thought, I could at least announce to the neighborhood that I was preparing to cook alfresco. In would go the match, and up and down the block ancient GI reflexes would kick in. Dozens of guys who hadn't lain prone on the bare earth since Bastogne would hurl themselves under the porch slats and dig in.

Yes, I'm going to miss that.

But it's the Green era, right? We're separating that trash, carrying home the groceries in that canvas bag, cycling to work, switching from spray to roll-on. If all I have to give up is a nice, loud fireball and a couple of fashionably singed eyebrows every couple of weeks to do my bit to clean up the air, I figure, what the heck?

Besides, the briquette ignition problem has been solved by a device so simple that you'd think it couldn't possibly work. It's one of those kind of doohickeys that used to keep showing up on the "Mr. Wizard" program to baffle kids.

Manufactured by a handful of different companies, the device is nothing more than a metal cylinder with a handle. Inside, it's separated into two chambers by a wire screen. You dump your briquettes into the upper chamber and stuff a wad of newspaper into the lower one and light the paper. In about two minutes, the coals are ready to spread around the barbecue.

Paula Levy, speaking for the AQMD, says the heat from the burning paper is highly concentrated in the small space and is reflected by the metal. It's ridiculously simple, and not terribly thrilling, but it's clean as a whistle, and it works.

And it's cheap. Levy said the different models are usually priced at $8 to $12.

To me, it's worth having just for the gee-whiz appeal. It's paradoxical, but in the computer age we tend to be astonished by anything low tech that actually performs its intended function.

If the cylinder were packed with microchips and powered by plutonium, we'd accept it as a matter of course and max out our Visa cards just to own it.

But when you can turn the trick with a hunk of metal that is about one notch above flint and steel on the technological continuum and costs about as much as a large takeout pizza with everything but anchovies, people are stunned into either silence or disbelieving snickers.

The Kingsford people, in particular (no fools, they also make charcoal briquettes), have been marketing their little chimney on TV by stressing its disarming simplicity in the face of ridicule by the ignorant.

It's a good commercial. But if they really want to take advantage of the current social climate, they ought to stress that it is also a great way to destroy newspapers.

Hey, we don't mind. You've been wrapping fish with us and slipping our best work under the new puppy and the gluttonous parrot for years. And we're quite combustable. Not as much fun as starter fluid, true, but we'll turn to satisfyingly unrecognizable ashes in a trice. Honest.

So go ahead. You'll feel better. Burn us.

We'll write more.

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