Wednesday, June 10, 2009

COLUMN: Grilling

As I type this, it's the joyous celebration of My Girlfriend's Birthday Eve. I think it was our first date when she proclaimed to me, "Oh, there's one thing you need to be aware of: my birthday's kind of a big deal." Part of her was kidding. The other part? Not so much.

Now don't get me wrong. By typing this, I'm not suggesting that my girlfriend is high maintenance, because she's not (well, not ALL the time, at least.) In fact, she's the most giving, caring person I've ever met. I just walked into my apartment moments ago to find it meticulously clean and a freshly-cooked pot roast on the stove. I'm not one to get all mushy, because I hate you mushy people with a sincere and deep passion, but I'm still in sticker shock from finding such an amazing person who seems to strangely dig me.

That said, the birthday thing has been causing me night terrors. How big of a deal is her birthday? Well, LAST year she had a shindig with an inflatable BOUNCY CASTLE -- and let's face it, bouncy castles are pretty much the bee's knees. But where does that leave me? In the unenviable position of trying to top that.

My girlfriend knows and/or is close personal friends with roughly 80% of the Quad City metro area. There's a 1-in-10 chance that she's your child's teacher and/or babysitter. Everywhere we go, someone comes bounding up for a power hug. And in the event of a hug-free outing, no worries -- her phone screams "NEW MESSAGE!" three times an hour to make up for it. Once upon a time, I thought I had a lot of friends. Compared to her, I'm a social leper.

The drawback to being acquainted with a majority of the phone book is that it takes otherworldly acts to get these folks to converge en masse for birthday shenanigans. That's why we've arranged for this year to be a series of nightly gatherings to accommodate the varying schedules of her legions of well-wishers.

Saturday was dance party night at the club (a blinding success if I do say so myself -- I've got some pull with the DJ.) Sunday was a fire pit at her house - we'll get to that later. Tonight is (shudder) karaoke night, which I'm far too busy writing this column to attend (aw, drat the luck. Cough.) Tomorrow is birthday proper, and that's MY day to shine. But let's go back to Sunday for a minute.

The weather was decent, and it looked like a nice night to chill out in her backyard, have some friends over, and end the weekend on the sort of mellow note that fits my life perfectly. Then I said it:

"Why don't we get some burgers and stuff?"

Or, in layman's terms:

"Why don't we drop everything we're doing, bolt to Hy-Vee, fill my car to the brim with a cubic ton of groceries, and then have me try to impress everyone by offering to man the grill?"

On the surface, what's not to like about grilling out, right? You get to feel manly, provide meat for your tribe, AND play with fire. But the thing is: meat doesn't exactly come with instruction manuals, and I could count my past grilling experience on one hand, and that hand could even have a couple of severed fingers. Still, as we headed to her house, I felt optimistic.

That's when I pulled into the driveway and gulped. Two guests had arrived early to the party -- her parents. Yikes. Now I REALLY had to bring my A-game. I'M fully aware that I'm pretty much worthless at most things in life, but I like to keep that secret to myself -- and ESPECIALLY from a set of loving parents who surely wanted to see if the weirdo her daughter dates was capable of being The Manly Provider. Gulp.

If there's ONE thing in the kitchen I'm good at, it's creating some decent burgers -- especially when I've got the help of my pal Emeril. At the grocery store, I slyly picked up a shaker of Emeril's BAM! Burger Seasoning. Throw in a little Worchestershire sauce and some garlic pepper sprinkles and it's burger magic.

Too bad the grill didn't magically light itself. I can spice up meat fine and dandy, but I've never ignited a charcoal briquet in my life. As I carried over the bag with brute machismo, hopefully no-one caught me desperately reading the instructions on the back. ("WARNING: FIRE HAZARD.") Happily, my girlfriend's aunt (who had just arrived) volunteered for charcoal duty, which is good because (a) I'm an idiot and (b) I value my arm hair.

It turned out okay. Well, the grill was a little TOO warm at first, as I managed to flash-char the first burger -- but otherwise, I think I proved my worth a tad. I only got scared when the veggie patties came out, as those icky little things are entirely alien and inedible before AND after the grill. But even with me at the helm, the food came out tasty and -- thus far -- none of her family or friends have fallen prey to e.Coli, so yay me.

As for the next couple days? We do things the Shane way. If all goes to plan, tomorrow morning she'll be awakened by the gentle strains of my favorite local band, The Premium Sellouts, who I've arranged to serenade her from her front lawn. Then I'm taking her out for MY kind of meal, where you sit down, get pampered, and let someone ELSE worry about the food. It's no bouncy castle, but I think I'm gonna be just fine.

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