In the winter, folks gather around a fireplace because it provides warmth and represents survival. On an atavistic level, the flickering of the flame is a window to the soul and to the history of the species. Fire speaks to us on a primeval level. The flame is mesmerizing, and the excitation and expansion of atoms release heat and light, summoning notions of the big bang itself, something that Homo Erectus must’ve grokked intuitively, all the way down to his hideous, unkempt toenails. Fire is a totem for all seasons: In the summer, the clans gather around outdoor barbecues and summon a flame that symbolizes survival in the form of sustenance. Following a ritual started by Early Man – who rubbed two sticks together, generating friction, and then ran a stick through the guts of a warthog and called it supper – tribes cook their protein, which makes meat easier to digest and prevents disease.
Yes, the exothermal process always speaks to humanoids, and, as the species has evolved, barbecuing is now hard-wired into our very DNA. Like the reproduction of the species, it’s a biological necessity to ’que. What separates us from the apes is not just the ability to walk upright. It is our capacity to douse briquettes with charcoal starter, drop a match, and bask in the glow of vanquished and inferior life forms, which have been set on fire with a spit rammed through their ass, all for our benefit.
(Judging by their diets, vegans and vegetarians have not made that metaphysical leap, and with this handicap, it is apparent that the only thing separating them from the missing link is, in fact, opposable thumbs.)
So light up the grill, pour some distilled spirits, and get in touch not only with your hunger, but also with Creation.
Traditionally, science class teaches young inchoate minds about something called the “carbon cycle” and its purpose for sustaining life on Planet Earth. The pattern goes like this: a) a plant inhales gases, exhales gases, dies; b) a living beast eats the dying plants; and c) the animal dies and its decaying carcass fertilizes the soils so plants can breathe, etc., etc., ad infinitum.
But as advanced beings, humans need more than science. We crave meaning. As such, spiritual explication of the carbon process can be heard at any funeral service these days: Listen as a cleric counsels the pious and grieving with the bit about “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” This verse is the carbon cycle’s sacred corollary.
Which is to say that the evolution of the human animal has complicated nature’s algorithm and a simple repetitive pattern – it is an insufficient calculus to explain how life will sustain itself and flourish on the planet. To fill in the gap of modern metaphysics, we must study a new equation: So enter the BBQ cycle.
The BBQ cycle goes like this: The lighting of charcoal releases carbon gases that warm the earth’s atmosphere, slowly tearing a hole in the fabric that protects the planet from ultraviolet radiation. As the coals die down and glow like Satan’s psoriasis, meat – say a rack of raspberry-soaked beef ribs – is placed on the grill’s hot surface. Once grilled and then turned over, the cow parts are consumed by a gaggle of carnivorous partygoers, whose arteries will clog with the coagulated cholesterol. This greasy goo will choke off the blood and oxygen supply to the carnivores’ heart, sending the gluttons into early cardiac arrest, and ultimately killing the poor gourmands. After the de rigueur burial service and the invocation of the aforementioned "dust-to-dust" riff, decomposition begins. And then insect larvae infiltrate the casket and climb in and out of the eye sockets and various body cavities; worms begin to munch on the toothsome remains of the corpse, digesting the putrefied protein and turning it into waste, and the whole process tunes up the topsoil and makes it just right for vegetation to flourish.
In the interim, Orange Countians and Westsiders hop into gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles and motor to Pavilions for more racks of ribs, and their charcoal-burning grills and automobiles expel copious toxic particulates that throttle the ionosphere and poke an even bigger hole in the membrane between earth and annihilation.
Yes, it is summer in California, and the BBQ cycle repeats itself, while Brazilians with machetes are hired to hack up the rain forests because there is a demand for more grazing room for cheap bovine flesh to carve up into patties and toss on an outdoor grill … and deforestation becomes a necessary component, because it is important to kill as many farm animals as possible in order to continue to feed and clog the arteries of meat-eaters, who decompose and seed the growing grass, thus greasing the wheels of the barbecue cycle.
Without people dying en masse, the polar ice caps will melt.
The lighting of a barbecue not only provides a necessary geodynamic function, it also serves a crucial social one: Like the gathering of apes around the dead zebra and the obelisk from the future in 2001, a proper barbecue is a social gathering. It will fulfill the quest for fire on a primeval level, and also, because of its spiritual component, inspire rarefied conversation, reminding all involved that we are in a New Age of Enlightenment.
I hosted such a gathering recently. Below are excerpted snippets of dialogue that prove Descartes and Rousseau have nothing on the finest minds in Los Angeles gathered around buckets of beer, stacks of hamburger buns, and globs of guacamole. To wit:
“You know, whenever I hear Blink-182, I immediately think Buck Owens.”
“I think it’s Steely Carmichael, not Hoagy Carmichael. Unless this guy was a white dude that started a riot in the inner city by playing the piano.”
“So we’re filling up the van in Tehachapi, and this elderly Chicano guy is telling us what an asshole Gram Parsons was ... .”
“Watching drag racing on TV is like listening to opera over the phone.”
“Technically, it is a collection, not a compilation.”
“Actually we met at Jumbo’s Clown Room.”
“Here. Put six drops of this under your tongue.”
“That flag is from America’s Second War of Independence … .”
“Who brought the Danica Patrick Twinkies?”
“There was plenty of light by the ping pong table. But somebody must’ve stolen the tiki torch.”
“Yeah, right. If you are going to have a threesome with Santa Claus, you’re going to want to do it in Albuquerque.”
“How much was it for the accordion player with the mohawk?”
“Really. OK, how much would you pay to have him ‘taken care of’?”
“If you are fixing your toilet with a coat hanger, just remember that the rabbit comes out of the hole, runs around the tree ... .”
“Well, sometimes you have to break your own rules. Like that time Hunter S. Thompson offered me cocaine at the breakfast table in a hotel in Beverly Hills.”
“The bad news is that your hammock is completely shredded. The good news is that you now have an opportunity to brush up on your macramé skills.”