At one stage in my life I created and then successfully ran for some years a vacation rental in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley called The Winterberry House. A big but very pretty pile built or rather rebuilt after a fire in the nineteen twenties. Seven bedrooms, ten beds, five bathrooms, two full size kitchens, fully equipped laundry room, dining room, sitting room, three fireplaces and in the downstairs rear opening on a view overlooking a pond an original and fully equipped Speakeasy barroom.
Groups and families would rent it for reunions, weekend or weeklong gatherings in the late spring, summer and especially the autumn.
Out the barroom door above the pond there was a barbecue area. Stone pad with a grill and a few feet away an area sunk in the ground about a foot holding a twenty-four foot cedar and screened gazebo lit by party lights containing a dozen cedar chairs and a couple of small tables. To one side a campfire ring with two old benches and the other a custom built large picnic table which seated ten or twelve.
It looked lovely and very well organized for barbecues and I and most guests always thought it was.
Until that is a young French restauranteur rented Winterberry for his girlfriend and staff. He had sold his restaurant in the Manhattan, was opening another and in the time between decided to give the small group of employees who would be following him into his new enterprise a long weekend in the country.
At the appointed time of his group’s departure I arrived at the property in order to walk back through the premises with him and found people dashing in and out of the bedrooms still looking for this or that. Obviously a while before they’d be ready to leave so I decided to stay out of their way by stealing a cup of the excellent coffee I could smell on the upstairs kitchen stove and waiting in the Gazebo.
Where I found all the chairs gone and in place of them was the huge picnic table which they must have disassembled to get inside. Where the picnic table had been outside were two Adirondack chairs placed side by side and the rickety benches around the campfire ring had disappeared to be replaced by the chairs formerly inside the Gazebo. All in all maybe a ton of cedar had been moved around and should be put back in place.
The restauranteur walked in behind me and said “we’ll return everything to where it was if you want Mr. Miniter but I want to explain to you why this arrangement will give your future guests a better holiday.”
“Okay” I was intrigued.
“I love America and Americans and barbecues are a major American pastime but unlike the French they have no more idea how to organize one, especially relatively small congenial barbecues than they do how to sing La Marseillaise.”
“I didn’t know the French barbecued?”
I fired that shot because I was piqued over his comment about Americans and it worked. He made a very Gaullic swoop to his forehead with one hand while rolling the eyes. The sort of gesture which means “what kind of an idiot am I dealing with” or maybe “God, how am I to deal with such ignorance?”
“Mr. Miniter” he said biting his words, “The word barbecue comes from the American Indian word barbarcoa which refers to a grill of green wood well above the flames upon which meat was slowly roasted. But French outdoor meat roasters the Rotisseurs have a written history of recipes and techniques which extends back to the twelfth century. They even have their own coat of arms.
“Sorry” I laughed mischievously, “who knew?”
He put his hands on his hips, looked down and tapped his foot. Then he shook his head and we both laughed and I asked “tell me what you mean.”
“What I meant was not that American can’t barbecue and barbecue , that is cook outdoors wonderfully, it’s that they typically misunderstand the purpose of a barbecue. For example American barbecues usually follow a certain three stage pattern – first waiting for the food, second consuming the food in a rush and third trying to digest the food. That is Americans start a big grill cook and cook and cook while everyone mills around and until the host finally announces “everything’s ready.” Then everyone queues up to load their plates with cheeseburgers, hot dogs, maybe steaks and hot wings, baked beans, potato salad, noodle salad then return to their seats if they had one, search for one if they hadn’t and stuff everything down. Which means that all this heavy food lands in your belly and has to be digested all at once. I know because I’ve been to as number of these affairs and after they’ve eaten, and it is eating not dining, and not even eating with any grace, more like eating like a school of Amazon Piranha tearing apart a pig who accidentally tumbled into the river, people are patting their tummy and saying I ‘need a nap’ and start looking for a quiet place to let their stomach juices work. Some even do lay down in a chaise lounge or on the grass and close their eyes. Or some gulp and declare “I have to walk that off” and take off or worse sit themselves in front of an American baseball game on the TV inside the house. The point being that organizing your outdoor meal in such a way you ignore the why people come.”
“Huh” I was confused and asked “if not for the food what then do people go to a barbecue for?”
He gave me another very Gaullic response shoulders up, his arms straight down with palms out, “for the same reason groups go to this wonderful property of yours, to be with each other. Why else. To be together around a campfire maybe but definitely around a table, chatting, arguing, laughing, catching up. And not just for the twenty minutes it takes to gorge oneself.”
“So a table should be the focus, a long stay at the table together. Now you have a lovely big table, just the right table but in the arrangement you had, which again is very American , it was outside, in the hot sun, or rain or wind where you get bitten by mosquitoes or annoyed by flies. Some people will grab their overloaded plate of food and gobble it down there but all in all won’t stay for long. So I put the table inside this wonderful screen in Gazebo out of the sun, out of the wind and rain where people will hang around in comfort.”
“I can see it” I told him and I could, “so I’ll leave it where it is.”
“But there’s another point and that’s that another way to keep people together around the table, and make the food much more and interesting is to serve in small courses all through the afternoon into the night, even all through the night. This means that since individual dishes can be cooked much faster than everything at the same time you eliminate the wait for the food and since small portions served over a longer period doesn’t require the digestive system of a Grizzly bear stuffing up for a long winter you eliminate the third stage of the typical American barbecue, trying to deal with all that grease and carbs all in one go.”
“But the main reason for putting individual tasty dishes on the table over a period of hours is that it keeps everybody at the table with each other where they will enjoy themselves best.”
“Now the argument against such a way of presenting food is that the host is always cooking. But that can be avoided with another fun routine, asking everyone to bring or prepare a dish they specialize in. Most people have at least one and enjoy showing it off. Sometimes really enjoy showing it off. You can even write up a schedule of who’s serving what when and leave it on the table where it will be the endless source of comments and jokes.”
“And remember the wine because wine you can sip and enjoy all night long without falling or insensible after a few hours or without running off to find a bathroom every half hour. An array of wines is also another subject for conversation and comment.”
“Finally this sort of relaxed gathering sometimes produces a magical moment people can treasure forever. On other occasions I’ve seen engagements or a coming baby announced. Once after wine , good food and hours of relaxed conversation away from the pressures of work and home a couple whom we all knew had just about decided to divorce broke down in tears and threw themselves in each other’s arms. Now nothing like someone falling back in love or back in love happened during our time here but on our second night in the gazebo we were about to give it up early but around one in the morning the sound of a thousand frogs croaking in the nighttime pond suddenly hushed and a chilling wind swept through the gazebo. The men ran into the house to shrug into sweatshirts while they fetched the girl’s sweaters and no sooner had they sat back down when the night sky exploded. Tremendous rivers of lightning stretched from way over in the mountains on the horizon over our heads and beyond and boom after boom after boom of the loudest thunder you ever heard shook the ground and seemed jump the gazebo foot or two in the air with each blast. It was scary, really scary. Then like the angels decided to finish their show with one triumphant blast the biggest boom of all and dishes rattled off the table, women screamed we heard trees go over in the woods. Then we sat there stunned for a minute when the rain started. Sheets of rain with so much water gushing across the lawn we thought the gazebo would be swept away until as abruptly the thunder and lightning stopped the rain did and the air grew colder yet.”
“And more still. And in that hushed moment one of the ladies, a French girl with a very sweet voice began to sing a simple song from her childhood about wanting to go on a trip to the country and we all laughed and laughed. Then we sat there for a few moments in the candlelight, still very much under the spell of the storm just passed and her singing we all silently got up and went to bed.”
“The perfect end to a weekend together. But only because when the storm caught us we were together still around that table.”
“But you still used the campfire ring?”
“Of course men and women love to watch each other in firelight but sooner or later the laughter from the table always draws one back. And if there were children here this weekend I’m certain that is where they would have gathered for their own stories.“
“And the purpose of the two Adirondack chairs side by side out where the table used to be?”
“Well” he held up his hands, “sometimes a man and a woman like to get away from the table for a space and whisper private words to each other. A good host should accommodate that natural desire if one can and not force them let’s say to leave the gathering and go into the house.”
“You must run a helluva restaurant my friend. I wish I got back down to the city more often.”
“I left a stack of brochures for my new one up in the dining room. But have you gotten the point I was trying to make that a barbecue just like a family meal or the gathering of friends to dine out is first and foremost a social gathering and the better it is organized in that fashion the happier everybody will be?”
“Yes I do and as soon as I get back to the house I’m going to write down everything you said make up a flyer titled suggestions for you barbecue at Winterberry and hand it out with the rental agreement.”
And I did, some guests followed the suggestions and later me they had a special time around that table too.
And that’s a grandfather’s advice on how to organize a barbecue.