One of Fred Thompson’s earliest memories as a boy growing up in Greensboro, N.C., revolves around a weekly family cooking ritual. “Every Saturday night, my dad grilled ribeye steaks and tipped in a little Jack Daniels and 7UP,” recalls the food writer, stylist, culinary teacher, recipe developer and author of six cookbooks. He now lives in New York City and Raleigh, N.C.
Across the nation, people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds, from Cuban and Greek to British and Mongolian, simply can’t get enough of cooking food over white-hot coals or gas flames. “I think we all like to play with fire,” Thompson jokes. “Typically grilling is something you do with friends and extended family. That’s what makes it so much fun for a lot of different people. It’s a passage of summer.”
While scouring 40 states for fodder for Barbecue Nation (Taunton Press, 2007), Thompson saw firsthand just how popular this cooking style is. What people grill, though, depends in large part on whether they hail from Manhattan or Minneapolis, Sarasota or San Francisco.
Before each trip, Thompson contacted local Baptist ministers and firefighters for the names of great backyard chefs. “I basically went around and tried to get myself invited to dinner,” he admits.
Some adventures were completely spontaneous. One Labor Day weekend, he rode through Elkmont Campground in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, rolled down the windows and “followed my nose for something that smelled really good.” That’s how he met Joe Creasman, whose slow-roasted, foil-wrapped corn-on-the-cob was the juiciest, most flavorful Thompson had ever tasted.
Then there was the day he darted under a park pavilion during a torrential downpour near Jupiter Island, Fla., and stumbled across the Huckins family birthday celebration. “Half the family was Irish-Catholic and half were Hispanic,” he says. “And the smells coming off the grill were unbelievable.” Tight-lipped at first, the grandmother eventually revealed her secret recipe for grilled chicken thighs marinated in barbecue and teriyaki sauces, orange juice, ginger and garlic.
Most of Thompson’s new friends were more willing to share. From an Indian food scientist in San Antonio, he borrowed a Middle Eastern recipe for tandoori-style chicken seasoned with coriander and saffron. From a young man in Eureka, Calif., he developed an appreciation for salmon fillets grilled on water-soaked cedar planks. In small towns and large cities, he found new approaches to grilling vegetables, from leeks and mushrooms to beets and Romaine lettuce.
What Thompson really learned, he says, was that “if you fire up a grill, everybody’s your friend, no matter what your culture is, no matter what your income level is, no matter what you’re cooking. Once you get around the grill, everybody’s the same.”
Fred Thompson offers these tips for cooking outdoors:
To avoid burning barbecued chicken, don't brush on the sauce till the last 10-15 minutes.
Make sure the grill is impeccably clean to keep foods from sticking. "When Mom told you cleanliness is next to Godliness, she wasn't talking about behind your ears," Thompson quips.
- Venture beyond steaks and hamburgers. "Grilling ain't rocket science," he notes. "A colleague of mine once said, 'If you can eat it, you can grill it,'and I tend to agree with that."