"Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster."Sun Tzu
For the Fourth of July in 2014 I asked my Facebook friends to tell me in 500 words or less, their worst barbecue disaster and the winner would get a limited edition red-white-and-blue version of the Thermapen, my favorite instant read thermometer (retail $99). I called the contest "Barbecue Fubar". For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it was coined by the military during WWII and means "F***ed Up Beyond All Recognition".
What makes a Barbecue Fubar?
As I read the entries, there were some frequent themes and lessons we can draw from them:
Your grill is out to kill you. Don’t turn your back on it. The minute you do, it will eat your meal and spit out blackened bones. All manner of evil lurks under the hood. Drippings or grease from the last cook can become a confligration in an instant. There is an old stupid myth that "lookin ain’t cookin" that says you should close the lid and walk away under the misguided belief that peeking will cool the meat and delay the cook significantly. Click here to read the science behind why this is just another barbecue myth.
That thermometer in the lid of your grill is a liar. The facts are that they are the most important tool you can own. Click here to read more about how thermometers can prevent disasters, including food-borne illness.
Recipe for disaster. So you read this cool new recipe and you can’t wait to try it, so why not trot it out for your daughter’s bridal shower? Or Christmas? Or for the dinner where you meet your future in-laws? I have a better idea: Understand that not all recipes are created equal. So many amateur recipes don’t wor because they are ambiguous, or poorly written. This website has a full-time pro (Yours Truly) writing all recipes and a Le Cordon Bleu professional chef testing them. Once you’ve picked a recipe, try it the weekend before the big date. And remember, scaling up from one slab of ribs to 20 is a minefield. If you have questions, check with us first in the comments section on any page of this website or in The Pitmaster Club.
Have a contingency plan. Keep pizza delivery number handy.
I got almost 100 entries and it took me weeks to read them, sort them, and select a winner, and even then I could not pick just one, so I awarded four first prizes. Some of these stories were knee slappers and they had me lauging out loud, but alas, a few were unprintable on a family website. The winners are below, unedited, listed alphabetically by author.
The greatest BBQ disaster that I have ever encountered was in the summer of 1990. My family was together at my grandparents’ for the 4th of July and we decided to fire up the old charbroil propane grill. Much to our disappointment, the propane quickly ran out….leaving us with no hope to finish our burgers. My uncle and granddad quickly improvised by wheeling the grill over to a 250 gallon butane tank that was used to fill up a couple of butane conversion vehicles my granddad drove. Within seconds the grill was back up and burning….really, really hot.
As my father, second uncle, and myself quickly retreated to the other side of the property, we were shocked to see that the original duo of butane engineers had perched on their lawn chairs and were watching their brilliance in action. Needless to say, within about 45 seconds the valve on the grill started to give way and resulted in a sudden release of butane from the massive 250 lb tank into the grill. The ensuing explosion sent the grill about 30 feet into the air (our burgers never to be found again) and my granddad and uncle running for their lives.
Needless to say, we ate sandwiches that night and said a prayer of thanks for the entire place not being set on fire.
I was 12, my dad was just teaching me the "master techniques" of grilling. Fast forward 20 mins later, I had a grease fire, I run inside yelling for my dad, and as we are both running out to the porch I close the screen door behind me; my dad ended up running through it knocking it off the track, fell in to the grill dented it, he is cut up and bleeding. Pulled the lid down to smother the flames. I in astonishment was speechless, steak ended up great though, my dad not so much.
It was Christmas 1983, my wife and I had been married four years, and my parents had gotten us a very nice kettle cooker for Christmas. I told my wife that I knew what we were going to do with the turkey my company had given me for that holiday: smoke it for New Year’s Day! I had the plan down: I would get up early, start the fire, and get the smoker ready to go. All my wife needed to do was get up at 7:00 am and prepare the turkey.
With visions of New Year’s Day football and all-you-can-eat mass quantities dancing in my head, the kettle/smoker was ready to go. Anticipating greatness, I go back in the house. There was my wife, at the kitchen sink, finishing up the seasoning of the gobbler. I was so proud of her. After all, she’s never been a "morning person". At all. Period.
As I approached the kitchen, I went to the refrigerator for something to drink. Simultaneously opening it’s door and looking at the turkey, I noticed that the turkey was an odd, pale color. Turning my attention to the fridge contents, I asked my wife what butter it was that she had just finished using. "The one in the round tub", she said. "Which tub?", I asked. "The white one", she replied. Not the sticks of butter, not the popular butter spread in the tan tub. The white tub.
She had just COOL WHIPPED the turkey!! (She had to give the turkey a really nice bath, and butter the turkey the RIGHT way – after she woke up!)
As a long-time Scoutmaster I loved to cook. "Trash can turkey" is impaled on a tripod of metal stakes, its pecking end just a few inches above the ground . A metal trashcan was inverted over the bird and hot coals placed about equally around the outside of the can at ground level and on top resulting in a gorgeous bird. Many said it was better than Mom’s. Redfish cooked on open coals, fried freshly caught catfish, cowboy pancakes (a strip of crispy bacon in the batter) and "Napoleon Dynamite casserole" (layers of sausage, tater tots, cheese and eggs in a Dutch oven).
One summer camp I had the chance to take the boys to a ranch with a large "wild" area. Near the campsite, there was a large cinderblock barbecue pit with a set of big grates they placed over the blocks and it cooked great.
I wound up shooting a huge wild hog and the boys learned a lot as I took the massive backstraps, shoulders and hams. We used the entire week’s supply of ice to cool it down. The next morning we started burning pecan logs down and the serious cooking commenced. I had a few flare-ups but nothing too bad. My plan was whole hog pulled pork and plenty of "burnt ends".
With the meat almost finished we got hit by a big rain which turned to hail, pea-sized mixed with marble sized. No chance to make it to the van or the truck, we took cover in site of the pit. We could see what was left of our tents. But the meat! I began to think about ways to rescue it. Then the flames! I guess it hadn’t occurred to me. The driving hail somehow either shook loose some coals or knocked off enough fat to have some big flare-ups that actually caught the meat on fire. The grates fell and most of the meat fell in to the ashes.
"Maybe we can wash it off" was the cry from our youngest Scout. The van was totaled but we holed up in it once the hail gave way to wind and rain. We inspected the damage. The ashes were black mud. The biggest piece was a rough approximation of a Boston butt. I rinsed it off and we sliced into it. It was a heavenly smell. Everyone ate a little of the salvaged mush. But sadly, there is a good reason pork recipes rarely end with "throw the meat in the fire for an hour and then wash it off with water."
Our tents were completely destroyed. Our clothes and vehicles ruined. We went home two days early. The boys were only sad that our barbecue was ruined. Ten years later at one of the boy’s wedding reception the caterer served pulled pork sliders. We were together and the groom said as he ate one "Not as good as that wild hog we ate at camp!" while the others agreed enthusiastically.
A few more worthy of note: The very talented Kevin Moriss wrote a long poem that, alas I cannot print here because it is laced with profanities, but they rhyme! Stogeaholic620’s tale began with a broken arm the day before, and then his son broke an arm during the cook leaving a novice to ruin the meal for him. And Keith Hart’s sad tale of how hanging out in the trailer while the whole hog is cooking outside resulted in a disappearing dinner left me wondering if I should laugh or cry.
Thank you all for your participation!