One scent that has the power to carry me instantly back to my childhood is the smell of charcoal lighter fluid. With today’s gas grills, briquettes and lighter fluid are, for the most part, relics from the past. Yet the unmistakable smell is one I will never forget . . .
Two words described mealtimes in my childhood home: quick and quiet. Suppers were tenuous affairs with us five children trying to eat in silence while our father listened intently to the six o’clock news blaring from the television two rooms away. Perennially in a hurry, he never allowed chatter or camaraderie to slow down his meal.
With the exception of church and school activities, our family was homebound. We didn’t go on vacation. We didn’t go to fairs, parades or movies. But one special event our loving mother wanted to “treat” us kids to, was a once-a-year backyard family picnic. I’m sure in her mind she visualized a memorable meal outdoors with sunshine, blue sky, bird song, and her children happily seated along a table piled high with salads, pickles, chips and burgers.
I don’t remember the specific holiday Mom chose to host the annual outdoor meal, it could have been Memorial Day or the Fourth of July; memories of the day itself were eclipsed by memories of the argument that always ensued.
While Mom was busy in the kitchen, Dad poured a mound of chalky black briquettes into the grill and doused them with lighter fluid. He used so much fluid that the scent permeated the backyard and attached itself to our clothes as we scurried in and out of the house fetching tablecloths, plates, cups, napkins, utensils and condiments.
Mom was still working in the kitchen when Dad began yelling that the briquettes were ready and where were the *#*#* burgers??!!
Within a few minutes one of us kids carried out the large serving platter filled with hamburger patties. No matter how many Mom made, whether a few or a dozen, Dad shoveled them all on the grill at once. The smell of grease and smoke mingled with the aroma of charcoal fluid that still hung heavy in the air. As the patties shrank into blackened pancakes, Dad ranted about when the rest of the meal would appear so we could eat and get it over with.
While other families had “cook-outs” our family had “fight-outs.”
Thankfully, it’s been years since I’ve had to endure the smell of charcoal lighter fluid, but just thinking about it conjured up memories of our summer ritual when the outdoor meals Mom envisioned were indeed memorable – but not for the food.