CHEAP EATS It was a cooking party. The theme was mint. Sockywonk made peppermint ice cream sandwiches. I made bò tái chanh, that Vietnamese raw beef salad that I love. There was minty lamb, minty pork, salads with mint, shrimp cold rolls (with mint), and, of course, mint juleps and mojitos.
Earl Butter brought toothpaste.
The eating happened on a roof in the Tenderloin, and we did not catch the roof or the building or the neighborhood on fire. Although coals did spill. It’s the strangest thing. No matter how pretty I get, no matter how nicely I dress, no matter how long my nails are, I still wind up on grill duty.
If I stay in the city (and away from chickens) long enough, I will one day soon arrive at a dinner party in a long, low-cut, lime green dress and strappy heels, with a fresh professional manicure, or better yet white opera gloves, and the hosts will hug me at the door, hand me a crumple of newspapers and a lighter, and send me out to the deck to get the coals going.
I can’t even begin to tell you how proud I am of this fact, or how uncertain I am that opera gloves are even a thing. My point being that, what the fuck, am I the only one in the world who knows about charcoal?
Here’s how I know: I’m in the kitchen, right, having gotten the coals started in a chimney starter on a Weber on the roof. Which is where the party is, too, so everyone is standing or sitting around sipping minty drinks and talking and laughing and probably smoking some things, if I know people. The pork is marinating, if I know pork. There is salmon. There are sausages. And all these things, and people, are waiting patiently for the coals to be ready.
My meat, don’t forget, is being served raw. That’s why I’m downstairs in the kitchen, with an apron on, alone, whistling, drinking mint juleps, squeezing lemons into a bowl, adding fish sauce, sugar, black pepper, hot peppers, and minced garlic. I’m slicing a neighborhood-appropriate tenderloin against the grain into thin slices, more or less dipping them into this pungent marinade, then arranging them on a plate with raw red peppers, raw white onions, crushed roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, and fresh-ripped cilantro and mint.
That’s how you make bò tái chanh, BTW.
How to burn down a house: when the coals are ready, pick up the chimney starter in one hand, and while you are cleaning off the grill with the other hand, accidentally pour the burning coals onto the roof, avoiding, if possible, your feet. (As that will alert you, and by extension your fellow revelers, and perhaps the whole neighborhood, to the situation. And hurt.)
I’m only guessing. I don’t know what happened up there. My mind was in the meat. My hands smelled like heaven, happiness seemed not only attainable but very near, and suddenly there was a commotion and Earl Butter and others were coming down the stairs and into the kitchen.
"The coals spilled on the roof," Earl said. "What should we do?"
I happened to be holding tongs. I handed them to him and said, "Pick them up." He looked at me like … like … like … I took the tongs out of his hands and went up to the roof myself.
The situation was well under control by then. A guy was pouring something from a glass onto the spilled coals and spreading them around a bit or grinding them out with his shoe. Everyone else was standing around talking and laughing and drinking minty drinks. The roof was smoking, just a little.
Not even all the coals had spilled, so there was still a chance of cooking stuff. I didn’t mean to go on and on about it, least of all at anyone else’s expense. Everyone knows I’m the clumsiest person alive. I also happen to be, apparently, a respected thinker and fire-prevention theorist.
My advice, in regard to accidental cooking fires of any kind, is to put them out. You do know not to pour water on burning oil, right? Or straight whiskey onto a fledgling flame. If it’s a mixed drink, use your judgment…. Who mixed it? With what? How much ice?
Tongs, spatulas, and small shovels are good things to keep near a barbecue, maybe a box of baking soda in the kitchen. Other ideas include always inviting at least one experienced fire fighter to all of your barbecues, or, hell, serving the meat raw. Now you know how.