Nothing says summertime like firing up the coals, cooking meat and vegetables in the outdoors, and enjoying the taste and aroma of freshly grilled food.
The primeval technique of using fire and smoke to cook your food is nothing new — it’s still as American as apple pie and flying the flag. It’s also quite simple, unlike barbecuing, which requires slower cooking over low heat. Best of all, because much of the fat sizzles right off the meat or seafood, grilling is one of the most healthful cooking techniques around.
Perry T. Hines, who has been cooking since he was 15, says that the secret to grilling is patience. Hines has earned a loyal following of customers who know that they can usually find him in front of his three large metal smokers at P.T.’s Bar-B-Que in the 1500 block of Taylor Avenue, where he rotates slabs of pork ribs, chicken, and pork shoulders, turning them and moving them around so that each piece gets the right amount of heat. When the heat proves too much for Hines, he takes a break in the shade of a makeshift tent.
Hines has been selling chicken and ribs and shredding pork for sandwiches at his stand on Springfield’s East Side for 10 years. The former basketball coach and teacher learned the tricks of the trade from his father, who owned a Decatur barbecue business. He doesn’t advertise and hasn’t upgraded to an expensive grill or gadgets to achieve his results. He’s still using smokers made of old metal drums and piano hinges. Bottles of vinegar and spices sit on a nearby table. Customers place their orders from a recycled Snowball Express concession stand.
Hines’ method includes placing hickory logs in the bottom of each drum, then adding a pyramid of charcoal. Once the pyramid has burned down, he spreads the charcoal out evenly, adds the meat to the grill, and waits about three hours.
Hines, who runs the business with his nephew Lavell Johnson, uses liberal amounts of Mrs. Dash and Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer (without MSG) to make the meat tender without adding salt. He uses white vinegar instead of water to stir up the flames. After cooking the meat, Hines slathers on a homemade concoction of onions, apple-cider vinegar, and seasonings with a small basting mop to add even more flavor and moisture.
Harvey Utterback, owner of Utter’s Catering and BBQ, has his own secret for grilling success. He slow-cooks his ribs in a smoker for three-and-a-half hours, then places them on the grill to finish the cooking. To season the meat, Utterback says, you should use whatever “fits your tastes. I use a mixture of everything — a little Greek seasoning, garlic, or whatever you like.”
Utterback, who served his grilled specialties on the Old Capitol Plaza for 10 years, beginning in 1978, says he learned to grill through trial and error. His secret? “Just cook it slow,” he says. He uses a large smoker on wheels that holds two-and-a-half pigs at a time.
Lunch is served through the week in the 2900 block of South MacArthur Boulevard, where Utterback grills beef brisket, beef, pork ribs, and chicken and serves up boneless-pork sandwiches. He also does a lot of catering; pig roasts are the top request by customers. Utterback’s smoked ribs were a favorite last month at the Culinary Court during the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum opening festivities.
But grilling isn’t just about burgers, brats, and slabs of ribs. Julianne Glatz, owner of the RealCuisine cooking school, uses the grill as another tool to cook creative fare. She advises using real hardwood charcoal, which burns hotter than charcoal briquettes. Glatz says that she avoids charcoal made with petroleum by-products.
Glatz, who grills everything from calamari and pizza to vegetables and fruit, says that foods with minimal fat or oil, such as fish and seafood, should be marinated or brushed with oil or butter for best results and to keep the delicate flesh from burning.
“Grilling is popular because it’s fun and participatory — and you can fiddle with it,” Glatz says. “It’s an art, rather than an exact science, because there are so many variables, such as temperature, humidity, and type of charcoal — and food cooked over a fire just plain tastes good.”
Here are a few of this summer’s best food-related events:
July 2 and 3 What’s Cooking
Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, near Petersburg
The New Salem State Historic Site offers a glimpse of the culinary world of village residents in the 1830s. Volunteers dressed as early settlers will demonstrate open-hearth cooking in 15 of the village’s buildings, as well as at two open outdoor pits, and re-enactors portraying a traveling family will cook in a tripod-hung pot outside a wagon. The menu will consist of deer, rabbit, squirrel, turkey, raccoon, and chicken. “Vittles” will be prepared as one-pot meals and cooked in open fireplaces. Volunteers will also be preparing cornbread, pies, cakes, buckwheat, mixed-grain bread, and johnnycakes. The event is for demonstration purposes only — you won’t be dining on a bowl of coon — but sarsaparilla will be served.
Charles Starling, a volunteer and full-time interpreter at New Salem, says that the new event is designed to show visitors that menus at that time consisted of fish and a lot of pork and beef. “Corn and pork were the main staples in their diet,” he says. Demonstrations will also be held on turning corn into hominy, grits, and mush, plus whiskey distilling. Children will be given the opportunity to churn butter. Demonstrations will be staggered throughout the day.
July 23 Taste of Downtown Classic
Old State Capitol Plaza, Springfield
The sixth annual Taste of Downtown offers more than 70 culinary treats prepared by local chefs. Last year, more than 20 downtown restaurants served up samples of everything from sushi and sea scallops to hot dogs and butter cake. The event, sponsored by Downtown Springfield Inc., lets locals and visitors eat their way through downtown. It also gives newcomers the opportunity to discover the city’s culinary treasures. Even if you don’t get to try everything you’d like to taste, most items served at the event by participating restaurants are available on the restaurants’ regular menus. Expect such items as gyros, mango margaritas, hand-dipped ice cream, banana-rum pastries, homemade potato chips, and fried oysters.
Aug. 27 Old Capitol Blues & BBQ
Washington Street, downtown Springfield
The aroma of slow-cooked smoked ribs and the strains of smooth blues music will be floating over downtown Springfield during this annual event. More than 2,000 people dined on baby-back ribs and danced in the streets during last year’s party, which was staffed by 50 volunteers, and seven teams participated in the rib cookoff. In addition to competing for prizes, the teams sell their barbecued pork ribs and other smoked specialties to event-goers. This year’s event is expected to be bigger and better — organizers plan to expand the cookoff to include more than 20 teams. The Illinois Pork Producers sponsor the event for the first time this year and will donate the pork ribs cooked by competing teams. The event was nominated for a Best New Event by the Illinois Main Street program.
Sept. 2-4 Ethnic
Ethnic Village, Illinois State Fairgrounds
This Labor Day tradition may not be as big as it used to, but size doesn’t always matter. The three-day festival, featuring ethnic food and music, is still a great way to end the summer. Irish, Greek, and Spanish organizations are the three main groups serving up food and music this year, but volunteers will also offer Indian, Cajun, and French food, and a new item, elephant ears, has been added to the menu.
From gyros to pizza, bratwurst to baklava, the edibles from various cuisines continue to attract food lovers. The event began in Sherman in 1974, at St. John Vianney Parish, under the direction of the late Rev. Peter Mascari. Locals of Italian, Irish, Greek, and German extraction were the first to sign on, followed by the area’s Polish population. As the years went by, Russian Jews, Filipinos, and East Indians joined the fun. By 1980, the festival had become so popular that it was moved to the fairgrounds.
Although the Ethnic Village pulls in large crowds during the state fair, the Ethnic Festival has always prided itself on being a refreshing alternative, offering the food without the crowds and confusion. Spanish, Greek, and Irish groups will perform nightly, as will local rock bands.