The Art of Friendship, Perfected Around a Grill

Gather round the table for some grilling and friendships!

I have joint custody of a grill.

Maybe I should back up. My wife and I have some friends who live about a mile away. Whenever we have them over to our place, I barbecue. They never barbecue on their own, though, so when we go over to their house, I cook on their grill. That’s why my friend and I joke about sharing joint custody of their grill.

What I really like about the “joint custody grill” idea is that it reflects what the grilling and barbecuing experience means to me. It’s not just about the meat or trying to make the perfect sauce (I made a cherry-based sauce from scratch once that was pretty great) — it’s about friendship and sharing life together.

My friend and I will hang out around the grill talking for hours as we smoke pulled pork, grill different kinds of meat, baste a roast, or slow-cook ribs. We enjoy the warm weather, we drink a beer, and we talk about stuff we’d not normally talk about. Somehow, it’s easier for dudes to talk about stuff sideways — when we’re both occupied with something else besides talking. Grilling is that something else for me and my friend.

It sounds like a scene from the 1950s, but it isn’t because our conversations are real: we share our worries and anxieties from work and at home; we check in on how well we are taking care of ourselves; we discuss big life questions about morality or spirituality; we share our dreams and hopes; we tell stories about things we take delight in; we crack jokes; and he plays devil’s advocate to my serious comments. All while occasionally forgetting to turn the meat because the conversation has become more important than the meal.

I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, even though I love grilling and barbecuing meat, most of all I love being able to sit with my friends to relax and talk for so long that it’s hard to remember just how our conversation managed to wander the way it did when I try to trace the thread back.

Grilling is like watching baseball — it is a social activity. Just sitting or standing at a grill on my own is pretty boring: turn the meat, baste or season, maybe add more coals or wood chips, close the grill back up, wait for a while, repeat. But, like baseball, it’s a lot more fun when I am with someone. At the ballgame, we’re not just waiting for the next pitch — we are carrying on a conversation and reminiscing and learning about each other. That’s what happens around the grill — yes, we’re working to cook food, but what we’re really doing is sharing life together.

I grew up without many friends and not knowing much about friendship in a practical sense. Grilling is one of the ways I was finally able to form some of those friendships — letting them slow-cook over the course of several get-togethers, so to speak. When I didn’t know what to say or how to move the conversation forward, I could always take a sip of beer, check on the meat, baste something with sauce, add coals or wood chips, or check the grill’s temperature. That would give me time to think of something to say or to allow someone else to join the conversation. At this point, the pauses have become more organic, the substance more natural, and the experience more nourishing and sustaining than I could have ever imagined.

When I look forward to grilling, I look forward to time with friends first — good food is a close second. For me, intimate conversations really are soul food. They help me connect to others and to learn more about who I am. The slow and steady pace of grilling food hasn’t just allowed me to become more comfortable with others — it has also given me a way to become more comfortable with myself, which has given me and my friendships a foundation on which to grow.

When I’m working around the grill, not only do I get to share something that I enjoy with my friends — I also get to share myself. And, like a good potluck, my friends always have something to share as well.

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