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Oedipal Fires 

Every Father's Day I flash back to my father's elaborate fire-worshipping ritual, otherwise known as outdoor grilling. On special occasions, such as Father's Day, or even on ordinary days, Dad was always ready to shed his identity as a dentist and get in touch with his caveman self. Like most men of his generation, Dad seldom cooked in the kitchen, but his reluctance to cook disappeared if it involved grilling meat outdoors.

For my father, grilling was a primal sort of pleasure. He would have nothing to do with the newfangled gas grills that looked like domesticated kitchen equipment. He wouldn't even use lighter fluid. Like our Cro-Magnon ancestors, he would set kindling on fire, although he did use a match instead of flint. After the fire was burning steadily, he would add the charcoal briquettes. He always maintained that meat grilled any other way just didn't taste as good.

As the eldest cave boy, I was the apprentice firemaker. I gathered the kindling and helped Dad build the fire. He explained to me that the first step was to place a layer of wadded-up newspapers on the bottom of the grill. He then showed me how to arrange the kindling in a carefully constructed grid pattern.

When I asked him why he bothered to arrange the kindling that way, he said it helped the charcoal get started faster because the briquettes would get caught on his grid rather than fall to the bottom of the grill. This explanation didn't make any sense to me, but I didn't say anything. I knew that someday I would be in charge of making the fire, and then I'd put Dad's grid theory to the test.

I was about 13 when my chance to be a solo firemaker finally arrived. I remember the day well. It was early in June, and I was looking forward to my summer vacation. As he often did, Dad called home before he left work. He and my mother discussed dinner plans, and they decided to have grilled steaks. In order to speed things up, Mom suggested that I get the fire going while he was driving home.

The drive took Dad about 40 minutes, which I thought was plenty of time to accomplish my mission. I scrounged up the kindling and wadded up the newspapers like a well-trained cave boy, but then I rebelled. When I placed the kindling in the grill, I deliberately avoided arranging the sticks in a grid pattern.

I had just put the charcoal on the fire when my father pulled into the driveway. He rushed over to the grill to inspect my work and was appalled when he saw that the charred sticks weren't arranged in a grid. He found a garden tool designed to dig up dandelion roots and used it to push around the burning sticks in a futile effort to arrange them according to his method.

While he was brandishing his red-hot dandelion tool, I noticed that the charcoal briquettes were doing just fine. My error, I decided, was that I had taken too long to build the fire. If I had only managed to get the charcoal fully lit before he came home, then he and his dandelion tool would have been unable to stop my fiery revolution.

For the rest of that summer, Dad and I battled over the grill. About once a week, Mom would tell me to get the fire going, and then I would rush to have it finished before Dad came home. Now that I was the heretical cave boy, I always refused to arrange the sticks in a grid, but I got to be so fast that the charcoal was usually ready for cooking before Dad could even pick up his dandelion tool. Still, he always made a point of inspecting my fire as soon as he got out of his car, and if the sticks were still burning, he would make an effort to rearrange them to his liking.

The summer of my fiery rebellion was more than 30 years ago. Nowadays most of my friends who grill outdoors have elaborate gas grills, but not me. I still use charcoal, and I still build a kindling fire to get the charcoal lit. Like my father, I'm convinced that meat grilled any other way just doesn't taste as good.

My nine-year-old son, Gavin, has already begun his apprenticeship as a firemaker. He always helps me gather kindling, and the other day he helped place the sticks over the wadded-up newspapers. I noticed that he carefully arranged the sticks in a grid pattern. *

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