Accent on Living

MEAT roasted on a spit is likely to taste better than meat cooked in an oven, especially a gas oven. Our contributor, the late Crosby Gaige, used to deny the word “roasted" to anything cooked in a closed oven; the proper term, he held, was “baked,”and a baked leg of lamb had little in common with the same cut properly roasted. Gaige thought that the loss of oxygen and the presence of other gases in the usual closed oven have a bad effect on meat; also that a revolving spit is the only way of exposing all sides of the cut equally to the roast ing temperature.

The virtues of the revolving spit are persuasive, and every summer the house furnishings catalogues offer various outdoor grill and barbecue outfits which incorporate it in their somewhat dreamy version of cookery al fresco. The offerings range from a simple rack or grill to rolling kitchens on the grand scale, all stainless steel and sparkling. A word to the unwary about these properties is long overdue.

In the first place, short of being a chimney sweep, nothing is quite so fantastically dirty a job as cleaning up the apparatus of open-fire cooking. Ideally, it would be let out on contract, and the householder who rashly tries it himself will be astounded at how much gear he needs — and at what happens to it. I myself have discolored most of Ipswich Bay and used tons of beach gravel in restoring a wash boiler after a lobster picnic. A smaller utensil, one might suppose, could be cleaned in the kitchen sink. It can, provided one uses enough copper sponges, steel wool, abrasives, muscle, and time, and washes down the whole kitchen when he is through. But boiling lobsters and steaming clams is a tidy business compared with broiling steaks and coping with their by-product of sooty grease, or greasy soot. All in all, the best clean-up method is simply to throw everything away and swear off on open-fire cooking for aye. Stainless steel indeed!

The other great pitfall in the outdoor setup is what the catalogues blandly describe as the “rotisserie attachment” — the spit. This is no more than a long rod, pointed at one end and with a small crank at the other Turn the crank, et voilà — the rotation begins itself. What makes the crank turn? It is turned by hand — no fuss, no machinery, and the device looks like simplicity itself. Just turn the crank and keep on turning it until the chickens are a beautiful brown.

Unfortunately, the problem of finding a human being willing to crank a spit for four or five hours is not readily answered of a summer afternoon. “The cook’s knave that turneth the spit" must have been undependable even in antique days, and it was close on to five hundred years ago that Leonardo devised his revolving fan. activated by the updraft of warm air into the chimney, to rotate the roasts of the Italian inns. The electrically driven spits of today are effective, but not every picnic ground is equipped to power them.

There remains one other possibility for the owner of the hand-cranked spit to test before he throws it away and returns to his kitchen: the hamster.

The hamster is incomparably the most useless animal extant. It must be waited on, hand and foot, like an infant; its habits are such that its nest must be renovated two or three times daily; it eats incessantly. Sooner or later, every child will bring home a hamster, and that child’s family will live solely in terms of the animal thereafter. A hamster in a revolving squirrel cage might be rigged, somehow, to turn a spit, although the nervous energy of the creature is so great that a reduction gear would be necessary — about 7 to 1, perhaps.

But lacking a hamster, and with no hand to turn the spit, the open-fire cook’s thoughts turn fondly towards his kitchen stove. The heat from his charcoal embers is uncomfortable. His steaks are black and leathery, yet he knows they are raw in the middle. Too fast, too hot. Too greasy. By the time he has lugged his equipment back into the house and finished the wash-up, he has come to regard a cookstove as one of man’s noblest inventions.

The ease with which a burner on the stove can be made hotter, or not so hot, stirs his admiration. His outdoor grill was forever flaming up, as the dripping grease refueled it, and incinerating even the thickest cuts of meat. He recalls the steaks gone up in smoke and his pathetically sincere experiments in how to reduce the grill’s heat. This was to be achieved, a friend had told him, simply by dousing the coals with a pitcher of water. Yet the result was what almost anyone but the proprietor of an outdoor grill might have expected: a burst of steam tantamount to an explosion, a deposit of ash particles over the whole area, followed by thick and continuing clouds of smoke that ended abruptly in new flames, with everything sizzling madly once again. Then, more water, steam, clouds of ash, smoke, confusion.

So it is that the outdoor fireplace, which even the speculative builder includes with every dwelling nowadays, usually has about it a ghostly air of disuse. Only a weathered fragment of an old chop bone or a bit of half-burned coal is there in its recesses to testify that it was ever used at all. Its spatterings of grease have been scoured by the rains and wind. Its chimney is stark against the shrubbery, like some ruined abbey or the Great Hall at Chinon — a place for bats.

It is also, so I am told, a convenient place for burning trash.