For reasons I cannot begin to explain — and I have given it considerable thought — the word “barbecue” is impossible to pin down. It simply refuses to commit to one meaning. Or maybe it’s that we refuse to assign one meaning to it, letting it run wild and stand in for different things depending on the word we put next to it. Going to “a” barbecue can be a lot different than going for “some” barbecue or waiting for “the” barbecue to heat up.
You’d know, if you were driving through the South, that a sign announcing “the county’s best barbecue” was bragging not about a superior grilling apparatus or a really enjoyable cookout, but a particular style of food. Anytime you see “barbecue” or “BBQ” attached to a restaurant, you know it’s referring to meat that will probably be accompanied by an optional sweet, tangy or smoky sauce.
The one thing that’s clear when the word “barbecue” gets mentioned is, a healthy complement of wine is always in order.
I love drinking wine indoors, in a comfortable environment with a controlled climate. But if ever there were a beverage perfect for the outdoors, it’s wine — especially in the presence of seductive food smells drifting through the open air. A huge part of wine’s allure is its fragrance, and the same goes for a cookout, whether the grill is loaded with fish, chicken, burgers, steak or ribs.
The key to hosting a successful barbecue, with tangy sauce or not, is offering choices. Barbecues — let’s call them cookouts in this instance — are often all about nonchalant abundance. Make it easy for your guests to get everything they want, but be sure to surprise them, too, with wine pairings and food.
These are all-American rituals, no doubt, but we also know that the entire world cooks food on grates over open flames. Take a cue from our friends in Spain, and grill up some green onions dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper. You could also cut the top off of a garlic bunch, drizzle the cloves with olive oil and let the whole thing roast inside the grill. Eventually the caramelized cloves will be ready for plucking right out of their little pods and spread directly onto crackers or small pieces of bread. Simply set them directly onto the grate.
Oh yeah, the wine. Isn’t this the way with a good cookout? So many distractions. Pour your guests glasses of adequately chilled Champagne, Cava or American sparkling wine — a style they can return to the entire afternoon and evening, from aperitif through dinner.
Give the wines a good little chill, and keep them in a cooler close enough to the grill that your guests can check in with the cook, steal little bites and commune with fire. It’s important.
If you’re grilling other vegetables, serve some rosé or gruner veltliner, one of the world’s most veggie-friendly wine styles. With shrimp, you could offer rosé, briny albarino or off-dry riesling, the utility white wine of cookouts, especially for dishes with a little spicy heat. For chicken, have some chardonnay on hand, or try a lighter pinot noir style, which would also work well with salmon.
Burgers are in their element with zinfandel, red Cotes du Rhone and Australian “GSM” (grenache/shiraz/mourvedre) blends. For big, juicy, marbled steaks, try zinfandel, syrah/shiraz, or malbec from Argentina, a place where grilling meat might as well be a national sport. And if you’re cooking up pork ribs with a complement of sweet and tangy BBQ sauce — if you’re serving barbecue at a barbecue — let the Chilean carmenere flow, along with merlot or pinot noir. Cookouts are full of distractions and bounty.
Because it’s a cookout, moderate chaos is good. Bring a controlled recklessness to your cookout. The onions, the garlic, the lettuce, the meats, veggies and bread: It’s all one big feast, and feasting is the best kind of eating. That is — if your goal is to create a fun, communal, life-affirming culinary and social event revolving around foods prepared on an open fire. Actually, that would probably pass for a decent definition of “a” barbecue.
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