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The Third Ingredient

My life in barbecue

By Madoka MoriPublished 8 months ago 11 min read
20
meat + fire

I am seven years old. We live in England, near Norwich. My dad’s business has exploded, and we are suddenly wealthy. He buys a proper English country house, something of a dream of his. It has a big garden, and my dad - rather optimistically, considering English weather - buys a barbeque.

We do actually get nice weather that summer. England gets a bad rap, weather-wise - and rightly so, let’s be honest. In the UK it seems to rain more often than it doesn’t. But all that rain serves a purpose when the sun eventually does come out: ‘green and pleasant land’ wasn’t intended as sarcasm (even if it works extremely well as sarcasm most of the time).

But the summer my dad buys his barbeque, we get enough nice days to make use of it. He got the classic Weber kettle grill, which reminds me of Lowly Worm’s little apple car, from the Richard Scarry books. I stay outside with dad to watch him grilling and he calls me his ‘little assistant’, but I’m not interested in the food as much as the bubble-shaped grill.

In England barbeque staples are lamb chops (which I like a lot), steak (classic), and sausages (for some reason I hate sausages as a child). My dad loves experimenting, though, and he comes up with my favourite: mushrooms - the huge, flat, dark European ones - wrapped in bacon.

We sit as a family on twee English patio furniture outside our twee English country house, looking out over the green and pleasant fields, eating mushrooms wrapped in bacon.

I think my dad was very happy then.

+++

I am ten. We moved to Singapore a year ago. We were only supposed to be here for a year, but when it becomes obvious that we are going to be here for longer my parents start scrambling to set up a permanent life out of the impermanent one we have been living up to now. I get bounced around schools - three in two years! - and have trouble making friends. In England I read a lot, but now I lurk in my bedroom for whole days, devouring books.

My mother considers me too young to turn fully hermit, so she makes a regular effort to get me out of the house. When the weather is nice we go to East Coast Park, which is miles and miles of preserved beach with grass and bicycle paths. Sometimes we rent a tandem bicycle, a novelty. We always stop at the same little hawker centre to get satay for lunch.

Satay are little skewers of meat in a sweet, sticky marinade, grilled and served with spicy peanut sauce. They are so small (each skewer a single mouthful) that you order them in batches of ten at a time. Ten chicken, ten beef, and ten lamb (satay is Malay, so no pork). This seems very grand to me; ordering thirty of something.

My mother and I sit on cheap plastic deckchairs while the cheerful satay uncle grills our food and serves it on equally cheap plastic plates. We make a little pile of the skewer sticks as we munch on the sweet, spicy meat and watch the ships anchored all the way up and down the coast.

Nobody else in our family comes to this place with us. It’s always just me and her.

+++

I’m sixteen, and I’m going to boarding school in Cape Town. Various economic bubbles have burst and the family moves a lot more often because of work. We were here as a family but then had to go back to Singapore, which I refused. I don’t want to change schools; not again, not with only one year of high school left to go. So I stay in Cape Town and the family leaves.

I get my first girlfriend. Her mother takes pity on me I think, and invites me to stay almost every weekend - startlingly progressive, when I think back on it now. My girlfriend’s stepdad doesn’t say anything outwardly, but he always seems rather - I suppose the best word is 'bemused' - at my constant presence.

One weekend we’re having a braai in the backyard, and I've been roped into helping him make a South African specialty: chicken on a throne. This is where you drink most of a can of beer, put some spices in the can, cram it into the body cavity of a whole chicken, and then stand it up on the grill.

Yes, this ends up looking rather graphic. He basically sodomises a chicken with a beercan.

He makes some off-colour innuendo about penetration and guffaws awkwardly. I can see in his face he regrets offering such a risky joke the second it's out of his mouth. The same face that shows his quiet surprise when I laugh.

He overcooks the chicken terribly. The family and I sit around on folding chairs in the backyard, eating boerewors and chicken as tough as shoe leather off paper plates. I make a sarcastic comment about his skills as a grillmaster, and he laughs along with everyone else.

He never stopped being bemused at my presence every weekend, but I knew I was welcome after that.

+++

I am eighteen, having a barbecue by my friend’s pool in Singapore. I’m with my group of friends from Junior High; they all just graduated high school in Singapore, while I graduated in South Africa six months ago. We reconnected when I came back to town, spending the weekends hanging out in shopping centres and cheap poolhalls around Orchard Road.

We decide to have a barbecue because one of our group is leaving the country for university soon. The rest of us will follow soon after. We are friends from an international school, hailing from all over Asia, Europe, Oceania. We will go to universities in Canada, Japan, Australia; but not here in Singapore.

We’re all kids who think they aren’t kids so our barbecue is a disaster. We dangerously undercook the chicken, we burn the beef. The only sauce we have is ketchup, and none of us think to bother with a marinade.

We can’t even get the fire started. We have to call my friend’s dad down to do it for us. He gets it going, tells what to do, swaps a few jokes. We all really like him - he was the cool dad - but he doesn’t stick around for long. He looks at us before going back up and leaving us to it. He knows what we are too young to realise: this is it for us. We will never all be together as a group again, no matter what promises are made to stay in touch. We’re all going to leave and most of us will never come back.

We eat our terrible meat and drink Smirnoff Ice. We swim in the pool until we have to run to catch the last train.

+++

I am twenty-two. I am in university in Tokyo, and I am hilariously poor. I don't own a cellphone or a computer. Electricity gets cut off in my apartment regularly, gas too. Even the water sometimes. When that happens I just shower in the gym on campus until I can scrape enough money together to get it switched on again. Food isn’t so easy to defer due to cashflow issues, though, and am the skinniest I will ever be as an adult.

There’s a yakiniku place in Yoyogi called Guts Soul that does all-you-can-eat from their most basic menu for under two thousand yen. I can’t go out very often but when I do this is my favourite place.

One night I go there with my friend and we absolutely gorge ourselves on student-quality meat. Neither of us can afford drinks to go with the meal. It’s from the cheapest all-you-can-eat menu but they still have harami on there, which is my favourite meat at yakiniku so I'm happy. We eat an absolutely shocking amount of meat for two people, getting everything they had on the menu; kalbi, tongue, horumon, and my precious harami being ordered more that once. Rice cost extra per bowl so we don't bother with carbs or even vegetables - we eat literally nothing but meat. We eat so much that my friend does that thing where you unbuckle your belt to lessen the pressure on your stomach; something that, up until then, I thought only happened in cartoons.

Our conversation is sparkling and boisterous that night. We are young, smart, and carefree, and each is making the other crack up with laughter. After the time limit on our all-you-can-eat is up we leave the restaurant and walk towards Shinjuku, conversation still going. It is late and our laughter echoes in the concrete canyons of the empty business district. We are roaring with laughter; actually crying with laughter at each other’s jokes to the point where we have to stop and catch our breath like old men, hands on knees as we laugh and laugh. We laugh so much that we speculate on having eaten so much meat that we have somehow become drunk, drunk on meat. Meat-drunk.

At Shinjuku station he boards the train to go home and I walk back to mine to save on train fare. I realise that I am so content, so happy, that I will remember this night for the rest of my life.

I’m right.

+++

I am thirty-four. I have flown to San Francisco to visit my fiance, but she isn’t my fiance yet. That will happen two years from now. Right now we are a brand-new couple, and are treading very carefully. Everything is put gently, every opinion couched in enough layers to be easily disavowed if needs be.

She is doing a year as a visiting scholar in Stanford. America and Americans terrify her; they are so loud, so big, so up-front with their opinions. She hasn’t gone out so much in the six months she’s lived here - just a few times with people from her faculty, a few houseparties. In a conversation about favourite foods I ask if she’s ever tried American BBQ and she says she hasn’t. Aghast, I seek to rectify this immediately: I find a BBQ place and make a reservation.

American BBQ is one of my favourite foods in the whole world. I love the unpretentiousness of it: just beer and noise and piles and piles of delicious meat. Eating your food off sheets of brown greasepaper or paper plates, using your hands. The only cuisine in the world where changing wonderbread to a more expensive kind of sliced bread would be considered a downgrade. It’s as loud, big, and up-front as the people who make it.

The restaurant we go to is perfect. She has never before tried a single thing we order - in most cases she has never even heard of them. IPAs, fried pickles, ranch style beans, loaded potato skins, and of course the meat: brisket, burnt ends, smoked chicken, ribs. Each new thing the waiter brings elicits mild confusion followed shortly by delight as she tries it. What is this she asks before taking a bite and saying oh! Her eyes shoot up to meet mine each time, wide and shiny with happiness.

Tonight she finds out that when I eat something delicious I get goosebumps, and I discover that when she eats something delicious she gets a sort of spasm in her jaw, like when you eat something very sour.

We will go to other, better BBQ places after tonight, but this is the first. I return to Japan a week later, but I like to think that she enjoys her time in America a bit more after my visit. Loud, big, and up-front has its advantages when you take it on its own terms.

+++

It is 2022, and I am thirty-eight. My fiance (yes, that one) and I moved to Kobe from Tokyo for her job last year, and I went with her. We found that a combination of pooled resources and being used to Tokyo rents allows us to justify a ridiculously huge (for us) apartment. It has something I’ve wanted for a very long time: a terrace.

It’s hard moving to a new city when you’re an adult. While it’s easy to make acquaintances, it’s hard to make friends - especially when working fully remote. Nevertheless I take a crack at it: I join a bookclub and a board game group, and make the effort to go out as much as Covid lockdowns allow.

Now spring has drawn to a close in its stop-start Japanese manner, and it’s hot but not too hot. Soon will come the rainy season, then in August it will be unbearably humid... but right now it’s perfect weather for grilling.

I invite some of my new friends around for a barbecue and board game day and we set up on our terrace. My fiance gave me a classic Weber kettle grill for my birthday (even at thirty-eight I still think it looks like Lowly Worm's cute little apple car) but this is the first chance we’ve had to use it.

I don’t go crazy: some steaks in a simple marinade. Chicken wings, potato salad. Everyone loves the mushrooms wrapped in bacon, even though I couldn’t get the big, flat European kind. One of my friends is surprised. He asks where I learned to barbecue.

I’ve been lucky, I say. I learned in lots of places, from lots of people.

There’s no real secret to barbecuing, really; that’s why it’s so widespread, so international. In theory you just need two things: meat and fire. Anywhere you go in the world you’ll find people putting some kind of meat on some kind of grill.

But there’s actually a little bit more to it than that. There’s a third ingredient. I’ve been lucky enough down the years to know people who taught me what it is.

humanity
20

About the Creator

Madoka Mori

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  3. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

  4. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (14)

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  • Mark E. Cutter7 months ago

    Yup. Another great story!

  • Ashley Callea7 months ago

    Great story- thanks for sharing!

  • Ali Howarth7 months ago

    Love this. Love BBBQ. Great story; thanks for sharing your travels and experiences. x

  • Gloria Michael 8 months ago

    Amazing!

  • Madoc M8 months ago

    Fantastic story, Madoka.

  • Daniella Cressman8 months ago

    Great piece!

  • Wonderful writing , and a well-deserved top story

  • Xiao daCunha8 months ago

    Love all the emotions in this piece -- lovely writing style, too!

  • Shane Harrington 8 months ago

    Loved the flow.

  • The Dani Writer8 months ago

    This is absolutely FANTASTIC to read! What a thrilling adventure through a unique culinary journey intermingled with family, transitions, and friends. Heartwarming!

  • Caroline Jane8 months ago

    This is fantastic. Unique, sincere and thoroughly engaging. Loved it.

  • J. D Correa8 months ago

    Love this

  • Call Me Les8 months ago

    Beautifully told memoir. So open and heartfelt, it's like we get to know all of you in one story! Well done. Was that last one the BBQ from the other day?

  • Babs Iverson8 months ago

    Fabulous story!!!💖💕😊

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