This month Olly Mann laments the challenges of hosting a peak-season barbecue, from catering to all tastes to dealing with the heat
At my house, I’ll have you know, barbecue season begins in late March, thank you very much, and is extinguished only in early November. And, actually (to use a meaty metaphor), I prefer the shoulder season. When I offer my guests kebabs at Easter time, they are pleasantly surprised, and typically delighted, to serenade the holiday with cubes of grilled meat (lamb, usually. Rabbit feels a bit on the nose). When Halloween hits, I wheel out my toasted marshmallows, and it’s a joyous festive treat! But mid-summer barbecues? I can feel my stress levels rising just thinking about them…
Cooking for an audience
Try not to crack under the pressure
For one thing, barbecuing in the summer attracts spectators. I am a capable enough cook, but—as with my parallel parking and tennis serves—the presence of an audience directly discounts my ability to impress. There’s enough to deal with as it is: balancing three incredibly sharp objects, unsure which has been used to prick raw meat and which was intended for the cooked stuff; preventing my kids from running right into the flames as they chase balloons and bubbles around the garden; trying to divert my own blood, dripping from my fingers thanks to said sharp objects, from erroneously brining the burger patties.
Attempting, therefore, to also sustain a conversation about property prices, or Elon Musk, or Partygate, while simultaneously sizzling sausages is almost impossible. Worse still is having to engage with one of those blokes (and it’s always a bloke) who wants to discuss how they barbecue, while I’m doing something entirely different, and inevitably inferior (ie, I have not let the ribs "rest" for ten hours in an upcycled whisky barrel, or bought a bespoke digital thermometer that beams the current temperature of my salmon steaks to my smartphone).
"Sustaining a conversation about property prices…while simultaneously sizzling sausages is almost impossible"
Usually, amid such tedious conversation, I accidentally flip a sausage out on to the lawn. And then what? As we all know, the "five-second rule" does not apply when there are witnesses. Even though I firmly believe a little turn in the gravel improves flavour immeasurably.
Meeting high expectations
Tiresome summer guests also expect a selection of "sexy" drinks. At a spring or autumn barbecue, everyone’s seemingly content with a bottle of beer in the brisk wind. But come mid-summer, when the sun has got his hat on, they come expecting a cocktail menu worthy of a West End hotel.
Buy pre-mixed sangria and call it a day
Ye Gods, I have tandoori skewers to supervise; I do not have time to be slicing Sicilian oranges and picking mint from my herb box! (My top tip, discovered after years of burning burgers in the service of fresh Caipirinhas: pre-mixed Sangria from Costco. A 1.5 litre bottle is eight quid. Decanted into posh wine glasses with ice cubes, this ticks the "exotic" box, while in fact being cheaper and easier to assemble than Pimm’s and lemonade. Also, when you get your guests hammered, they don’t notice when you give them the burnt bits.)
Dealing with the heat
Another issue: the heat. When it’s a hot day, and I’m sweating buckets, I’ll tell you what I would most like to do: kick back on a deck chair and read the paper. Take a quick dip in the paddling pool. Sip gently from a bowl of gazpacho.
I would not, especially, choose to bend over a fiery pit, my face dripping into the meat juice, until my hair smells like a bonfire. Why would I?
"When a vegan is in attendance…it plays havoc with my salad"
Vegans are a pain, too. Sorry, but they are. Vegetarians I can handle: in fact, I reckon meat substitutes such as Beyond Burger have gotten so good, I’ll happily forgo the beef entirely and eat the veggie stuff myself. But when a vegan is in attendance—which is almost unavoidable in the Home Counties these days—it plays havoc with my salad. Because, as everyone knows, the only appropriate "salads" to have at a summer barbecue are coleslaw, potato salad and pasta salad. I do all three. And my recipe for all of them—douse in full-fat mayonnaise, sprinkle with far more salt than you’d ever imagine possible, then smother in yet more mayonnaise—is, apparently, "inappropriate" for vegans.
Balancing various dietary requirements can be hard work
Summer barbecues also generate spontaneous Plus Ones: the last minute, "Oh, can I bring my boyfriend?" request. Well, sure, but that means we can’t all fit around our garden table…which means we’ll end up perched on the end of sun-loungers and camping chairs, precariously balancing paper plates of bones, carbs and chips upon our knees, and then, sure as night follows day, inadvertently smearing sauce all over my garden furniture.
This overflow seating arrangement also results in at least one guest having to suffer the difficult ethical quandry of eating chicken wings in front of my pet hens (I usually offer this seat, at the end of the lawn, to the vegan).
So, for this summer’s outdoor dining trend…might I suggest a takeaway?
Read more: How to complain about food
Read more: Can a swan break your arm?
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter