25 things vanishing in America, part 2: Charcoal

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charcoalAmid ever-increasing evidence of the cancer risk involved with grilling and the slow expansion of laws regulating the use of outdoor cookers, it seems like charcoal is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. However, before we bid farewell to one of America's signature culinary experiences, it might be worthwhile to pause, take a deep breath, and consider if the quest for eternal life is worth the loss of summer pleasure.

When I was a kid, the switch from charcoal to gas was a momentous event, and a matter of no small debate in my family. For my sisters and I, there was little question that the move was a good idea. In addition to the ease of setup and the simplicity of cleaning, there was the simple fact that my father approached grilling with a mindset that hearkened back to his Navy days. He would begin by soaking the briquettes with lighter fluid until they assumed a waxy, oily appearance, after which he would throw a match.

We would watch in fascinated terror as the flames licked at the roof that overhung our back porch. Soon enough, the inferno would subside and my father would put on the meal. Luckily, the house never burned down, and our dinner only had a slight taste of diesel fuel. Besides, the charcoal made eating a special occasion, adding a flavor that was complex, primitive, and thoroughly delicious.

The gas grill made our dinner safer and easier, and cleanup was a joy. On the other hand, it also lacked the pizazz and the flavor of good old charcoal. Unfortunately, while we reveled in the belief that propane was safer than charcoal, subsequent studies have shown that both modes of cooking carry a significant risk of carcinogens, both from the smoke that they produce and from the burned fat that they redeposit on food.

On the bright side, I have since learned that there are numerous precautions that can lessen the potential dangers of grilling. Perhaps more importantly, it is worth asking where, exactly, we draw the line between food safety and primitive pleasure. As more and more foods are adjudged dangerous, we will ultimately need to decide just how many of life's joys we are willing to trade for a little more time on the clock.

Speaking personally, I can guarantee that, at least once this summer, I will enjoy one of my father's favorite dishes: a piece of fresh swordfish drizzled with lemon juice, slathered with butter, and grilled over hot coals. In the process, I will consume an alarming witch's brew of mercury, trans-fats, sodium, and carcinogens. I won't eat grilled swordfish every day, every week, or even every month, but I certainly will do it once or twice and I will enjoy it, because life without enjoyment is...well, like a summer without charcoal.

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