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Outdoor Kitchens
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Posh outdoor kitchens have opened up a new chapter in the story behind barbecuing, which could very well be America?s oldest native form of cooking, according to John Henry Abercombie (who goes by John Henry), a teacher of culinary at Houston Community College and author of Backyard Grilling and Barbecuing. While in Dallas teaching a class in grilling at Jackson?s of Dallas, John Henry elaborated on the history of barbecuing.

When slaves ran off the plantations, the Seminole Indians in Florida and Georgia would take them into their camps, where the blacks watched the Indians cook with smoke billowing out of ground pits.

?The blacks were the ones to keep barbecuing alive when no one else was doing it,? said John Henry. ?We were doing it in our neighborhoods, especially in the south. The only place you could buy it (barbecue) in the 30?s and 40?s was in the black neighborhoods.?

Introducing charcoal and propane gas took grilling to a new level.

?Most of us grew up on charcoal,? said Kevin Kraft, sales associate with Barbeques Galore. ?My dad started making fires in the backyard with briquettes. Briquettes are sawdust and sand, lighted with a petroleum product that has to cook off.? Today, a true hardwood lump charcoal is available, manufactured by Hasty Bake and Big Green Egg. And fast ways are available to start the fire in lieu of lighter fluid; so there is no lighter fluid flavor on food. ?That?s one of the things I get on my soap box with,? Kraft said, ?try to convert people from the old charcoal taste for briquettes to true hardwood charcoal. It gives a wonderful flavor.? And there is less ash to clean up. Not just charcoal, Hasty-Bake has manufactured charcoal grills since 1948. Cart mounted or custom built into outdoor cooking centers, Hasty-Bake charcoal grills make the most succulent grilling and smoking and rotisseries.

The trend, however, is towards gas with gas grills outselling charcoal grills at a rate of 2 to 1 nationally, according to Kraft. In Dallas the rate is more like 4 to 1, according to estimates from Kraft and Steve Herndon, operations manager at Jackson?s of Dallas. And the reason for choosing gas is speed and convenience.

But to get barbecue taste with a gas grill requires vaporizing grease?grease drips down and hits hot ceramic rocks or rods, where it vaporizes into the smoke that flavors food, Herndon says. For more of a smoked flavor, smoker boxes are designed inside grills to hold wood chips. To further enhance the smoked flavor, use a technique called indirect grilling, i.e., turn one burner on high heat and place the food away from the heating element.

?Otherwise gas is rather sterile,? said Kraft. But an explosion of new techniques and rubs has helped bridge the gap in flavor. For instance, John Henry carries a line of seasoned rubs named after family members and friends; some have the flavor of wood?mesquite-hickory-pecan?mixed in the spices. And Jackson?s of Dallas offers cooking classes ?the next class is scheduled October 7th with chef Mark Pierce; John Henry returns October 21, 2000.

Nowadays, outdoor cooking goes beyond the barbecue grill to the gourmet outdoor kitchen?preparatory islands consisting of a grill, refrigerator, sink, side burners, rotisseries, even smokers, and occasionally a pizza oven plus extras like gas lanterns, chimeras, freestanding fireplaces, and fire pits.

?They?re basically converting their backyard to another room,? Herndon said. ?Especially the fall and the spring, with our winters not really being that cold anymore, people are using their backyards as another play room.? And a lot of people are going for a permanent brick-in design.

?More people tend to use it (grill) as enhancement for the value of their homes, which we feel is an even bigger plus than a pool,? Kraft said. Some people think that pools are not always a plus in terms of value of their home. ?Whereas, every red-blooded American wants a grill!?

So, homeowners are looking at grills to last up to 20 years or more.

?And what is going to make a grill look good and last a long time is usually stainless steel,? Herndon said. An 18-gauge stainless steel can go for 20 years and still look like it?s in new condition?even outdoors. ?You?re going to get some smoke, of course, from barbecuing. It (stainless) will discolor. But, you spray a little oven cleaner on it. Wait 15 minutes. And wipe it off. And the smoke disappears. So, really stainless is the better product to use. ?

Still, porcelain coated (aluminum) is going to work well because of the porcelain, according to Herndon; and porcelain reflects heat back down into the food. ?All ovens have porcelain coating on the inside,? Herndon said. And they can look brand new with oven cleaner. Herndon does not recommend untreated aluminum because aluminum changes color with lots of heat. So, aluminum will not look attractive after 3 years or so. To keep your grill in mint condition, Jackson?s of Dallas provides a service at $49.95 plus parts, recommended once a year for cleaning ceramic rocks, rods, and for maintenance.

Manufacturers, like Dynamic Cooking Systems, Inc. (DCS), now sell combination grills, a favorite style being a 48-inch unit with 36-inch grill space, infrared backburners, and a double side burner for around $4000, according to Kraft. These grills also come with rotisseries, a popular accessory after Boston Market came to Dallas. With grill space, burner space, workspace, and storage for electrical equipment and small appliances underneath, outdoor chefs can potentially ?turn-key? an entire meal without making trips to the kitchen.

?We just put it (the grill island) off to the side of the patio so you can walk up and stand on your patio and grill,? said Herndon. ?You really don?t want it under a covered awning, where you?re going to get a build up of smoke, soot, and creosol, just from cooking over a period of time.? Permanent cooking centers can be located anywhere in the yard as long as connection to gas, electricity, and plumbing is established.

Large cooking centers are, more often than not, custom installed by a masonry builder, who may charge, depending on the size of the project, from $1500 to $7000, even more. Masonry, Ben Smith, started building outdoor freestanding custom wood-burning fireplaces two years ago after a customer requested one. He always has his projects inspected to stay within the guidelines of the fire code. Inspections are also recommended for fire pits, which are gaining a popular following among people who enjoy congregating around them?as did the early Americans.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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