Grill Grates


There are two groups of men in the world. Those who clean their grill grates after each use, and those who leave the charred remains from their previous cooking, coating the grill grates with festering residue.

Then, when they light their grill the next Saturday afternoon, they let last week’s grimy salmon skin “burn off” for a few minutes before they lay their marinated chicken breasts over the fire.

Now these men, the Men from Group 2, may occasionally brush their grates with a long-handled wire grill brush. This vigorous abrasion etches hundreds of irregular scratches into the cast iron. While at the same time, massaging the week-old fermented salmon skin into the nooks and crannies, where the rancid fat and fetid carbon will continue to age nicely.

The Men from Group 2 believe this adds a unique “natural flavor” to their poultry and sirloins.

I am not from that group.

I am from the first group, the Men from Group 1. We men who diligently clean our grates with a non-scratching scour pad after each grilling.

And then we dry our grates thoroughly with lint-free paper towels. Or cotton hand towels we reserve for that purpose, and that purpose only.

I have lived happily among the Men from Group 1 most of my adult life. Even when I'd witness the acts of a Man from Group 2 while at a neighborhood get-together, or child’s birthday party, I would remain quiet and steadfast. In acceptance of his practices, though not in agreement with his beliefs.

On those occasions, I would also fast.

As for the source of the grill fire. For many years, I was a hardwood man. I avoided toxic charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid like the plague. And I believed gas-fired grills were merely a tedious way to slowly boil meat.

But as will happen as we men age, our stamina begins to diminish. And so one day, I did finally give in and purchase a gas grill.

Actually, to be fair to myself, I bought the grill for my son, Andrew.

He was about 14 years old and beginning to show an interest in cooking. Although he was a Boy Scout, his meals while camping tended to be mostly apples and carrots and candy bars.

So, to encourage his expanding culinary interests, I bought him a portable two burner camping grill called the Coleman RoadTrip.  

He used it once.

And so the Coleman RoadTrip sat on our back porch for a year or more. I kept it dusted off. And I’d light the burners occasionally to keep them clear of spiders and other insects who might nest there.

All the while I enthusiastically grilled and smoked and broiled an array of lamb, and beef, and chicken, and fish with my pal, the wood-burning grill.

But there was one problem that bothered me. It was the lingering odor of fish on the grates. Even after scrubbing and drying them, I could detect a faint fish scent that didn’t sit well with my wife’s medium-rare organic filet.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was a problem that the Coleman RoadTrip would soon help me solve.

You see, eventually my trusty wood-burning grill seared a steak for the last time. I’d worked hard to save it. More than once I’d replaced the tray supports, the handle, and the ash pan. But after years of service, it finally gave up and disintegrated beyond repair.

This happened on a Friday evening. Just as the sun was resting low in the early summer sky. Too late for a trip to The Home Depot for a new grill.

A pound and a half of Atlantic Salmon lay waiting in the fridge, squeezed with lemon, and a light sprinkling of cracked pepper.

And my wife’s Romaine salad rested crisp and perky in its earthenware bowl. All three wanting attention.

So I turned and eyed the Coleman RoadTrip. A spider descended from the front handle, the setting sun glistening off its strand of silky web.

That was five years ago.

I always planned to get another wood-burning grill. But we’ve moved twice since. And for a year we lived in a third-floor apartment with a small deck. So I grew to appreciate the quick start time, easy flame control, and swift clean up I enjoyed with the Coleman RoadTrip. 

That trusty grill finally ended its gas-fired service last May. The blue-flame jets turned yellowed and weak. The spouts and outlets rusted through. So I promptly bought another. Red. Just like the original.

And as I was folding up the old RoadTrip to haul it to the recycle bin, I had an epiphany. I now owned two sets of grates. One for fish. One for meat.

My life suddenly became radiant and exuberant. I was eager to explore this discovery to its fullest. So I grilled five times a week. Chicken. Lamb. Salmon. Steak. Sausage. Even kale.

At first, it was easy to distinguish between the grates. The older ones showed signs of use, the new ones were fresh and untarnished.

But gradually, it became more difficult to distinguish between the two sets. The older fish-only grates, and the newer, meat-friendly grates.

This caused some despair.

After I cleaned and dried them, I was careful to hang the fish-only grates on hooks I installed next to the grill. 

But sometimes, every so often, the new meat-friendly grates and the older fish-only grates would get intermingled.

Although I never admitted it to anyone, I was no longer able to determine with 100% certainty which grates were fish-only and which were meat-friendly.

This presented a logistical, and culinary, and perhaps even a philosophical dilemma: Is it important for me to specify which grates are which?

This dilemma had many levels. My base concern was simply tainting our next medium rare filets with last week’s Atlantic salmon.

But another question was even more disconcerting.

Was this a first step toward a general collapse of my standing among the Men from Group 1? Was I headed toward a future of cleaning my grates every other week? Or just once a month?

Or perhaps even not cleaning them at all?

I often lay awake at night and wondered if I would, in say, 6 or 8 months, find myself in the outdoor cooking section at The Home Depot, assessing the durability of sturdy wire grill brushes.

Still today, when these thoughts keep me awake at night, I take a deep breath, and I remember the new package of Scotch-Brite Heavy Duty Scour Pads I have under the kitchen sink. And I picture the bottle of scent-free organic liquid detergent next to them. And I imagine gripping a durable scour pad in my right hand, and I feel the weight of a meat-friendly grate in my left hand. And with imaginary moderate force, I move the scour pad back and forth and back and forth along the grate, gently and thoroughly washing it clean. And I rinse it under hot running water. And I dry it with a fresh, lint-free paper towel.

And then, I fall gently and happily to sleep. Into the arms of my dream. A world of clean odor-free grates, and steady-blue propane flame.


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