Retro Barbecue: Tasty Recipes for the Grillin' Guy
by Linda Everett
Published by Collectors Press
128 pages, 2002
Dressed to Grill: Savvy Recipes For Girls Who Play With Fire
by Karen Brooks, Diane Morgan and Reed Darmon
Published by Chronicle Books
108 pages, 2002
Reviewed by Adrian Marks
Though some people do it all year round and a lot do it throughout the summer, there's something about those last lazy, hazy days of summer that makes me want to head for the grill. It might be that, when it's hottest inside, it makes sense to do as much cooking as possible out of doors. Or, as I'm inclined to think, it might be simple denial: If I'm barbecuing, it must still be summer, right? So as long as I keep the grill hot, winter will never come. It doesn't actually work, but it doesn't hurt, either.
One of the problems with barbecuing, however, is that it's easy to get stuck in a rut. Grilled burgers again. The occasional steak. Maybe a kabob or two. But you can cook just about anything on a barbecue. All it takes is a little know-how, a little ambition and, of course, just the right book.
Retro Barbecue is a good candidate for this job. The kind of fuel you need to get inspired about the ol' grill. Though it's subtitled Tasty Recipes for the Grillin' Guy, there's nothing really exclusionist about the book or the recipes except, as the title suggests, the retro feel of bygone days when men were men and women wore beehives.
The food styling here is intentionally terrible: a lot of the images seem like rejects from James Lileks' Gallery of Regrettable Food. There are product advertisements from the 1950s -- happy families grilling around Planters' products, delighted picnickers quaffing back Pepsi -- as well as color plates that obviously started out decorating cookbooks and, of course, there are lots of shots of meat, meat, meat: 1950s style. Hamburgers the size of overcooked footballs, huge pork chops so fat-laden your arteries harden just looking at them, slabs of ribs that look heavy enough to sink a 55 Buick. Those were the days.
As arresting as all of this is, none of it detracts from Retro Barbecue's usefulness as a cookbook. Sure: this is classic Americana, but it's been moderned up enough -- in fact if not in look -- to provide hours of grillin' fun. And though the package is all about nostalgia, the food will work for any party looking to do a little deck cooking.
Retro Barbecue claims 125 recipes but, honestly, it feels like more. Broken into 18 logical food-type-determined chapters, Retro Barbecue includes sections on marinades, sauces, chilis, veggies, ribs, steaks, chicken, ham, burgers, dogs, fish, salads, breads, relishes, desserts and drinks. The recipes themselves are pleasingly simple to follow and the ones I tried worked beautifully, just as described.
One beef (pardon the pun) was with the burger recipes. It took me years and years and years to realize -- with Pierre Franey as the catalyst -- that the very best hamburgers are those made entirely of beef: no additives necessary or desired. None of the eight hamburger recipes included in Retro Barbecue hint at such a possibility. And so you have Drippin' Juicy Burgers (which includes evaporated milk!), Rosarita Beach Burgers (which include refried beans and green chilies, among other things), Too-Good-To-Be-True Burgers (this one includes a potato and breadcrumbs) and other burgers with fairly odd additives. All of this might be fun, but I won't be finding out: I like 'em pretty plain.
If this overly dressed beef is a shortcoming (and I concede that not everyone would think that it was) the balance of the book makes up for it. Try, for instance, the Caribbean Pork Roast. Essentially a jerk recipe, this one is full of smoky goodness for a small crowd. The Laguna Beach Suntanned Chicken typifies the perfect barbecue recipe: the ingredients list is short and everything on it is easily accessible, and the cooking instructions are just as easy to follow. The same can be said for almost all of the included rib recipes, from Bad Billy's Best Ribs to Maui Wowee Luau Ribs and then some.
All in all, Retro Barbecue is a well thought out and executed book that works on both a design and actual cooking level.
The same can not be said for Dressed to Grill. I have seldom been as harshly irritated by a cookbook. And it wasn't just the exclusionist subtitle -- Savvy Recipes For Girls Who Play With Fire -- that had me actually considering using the book as fuel for the fire, but the exclusionist tone combined with a thoughtless impracticality. To say it in as few words as possible, Dressed to Grill is a stupid book.
The stupidity begins with the book's organization. Dressed to Grill is not organized by food groups or even meal planning or seasons or any of the devices generally employed by food writers for this purpose. It is, rather, organized around mood or something very like it. Take, for instance, Chapter 6: Bonfire of the Miseries: Welcome Back to Bachelorettehood. Just what about that heading indicates that this is the part of the book where you will find Jerk Chicken With Grilled Bananas and Skewered Melon Balls with Wrathful Grapes? And just what do you think a recipe for How Could I Be Sarong might include? And while the chapter called Liquid Assets does hint at what we'll find there, Chapter 4: Showing Off the Best Parts simply does not. And while a recipe for grilled chicken breasts called Getting Naked might be considered cute by some, I consider it -- well, you guessed it -- irritating.
There are probably some perfectly good recipes in Dressed to Grill. The track records that some of this particular group of authors has put together is pretty impressive. A stack of food books that includes Dude Food, Atomic Cocktails, Highballs Highheels and others: all of them better books than this one. As I said, there might be good recipes in here but, to be quite honest, I couldn't stomach actually trying any. It was all I could do to actually read it and by the time I got to the most pathetic excuse for an index I've ever seen -- categorized by stupid recipe name rather than food type -- I was through, through, through. (Since when do real humans look for coleslaw under "S" for Skinny on Coleslaw, The? Indexes are supposed to help readers find things, not help convince them about how cute the authors are.)
If grilling is in your near future, get moving now: summer is going fast. And the barbecue can help convince you it will last forever. | August 2002
Adrian Marks is an author, journalist and enthusiastic amateur chef.