World Cup Dispatch: Part Four (Man v. Fire: Time’s Oldest Rivalry)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Contributor Andrew Post is traveling in the U.K and Ireland for the next two weeks covering the World Cup and his trip for This week he’s in North East England before heading to Dublin, then on to Scotland. Minus any hooligan-related incidents, Andrew will be checking in with dispatches along the way. God help him.

By Andrew Post

As travelers, we bounce from one nerve-wracking situation to the next. Circumstances which test the nerves and stretch the limits of the comfort zone await the wanderer in serried ranks. No sooner is one crisis averted than another rears its head. Lost passports, scary new cities, blocked roads, natural disasters, airport delays, long bus journeys, dodgy hostels, and smelly roommates are just a few of the dangers and annoyances that we face along the way.

Few people, however, are faced with such double danger as your humble correspondent. Imagine braving the perils of a big city in Ireland . . . immediately followed by the trial of hosting a barbecue for a bunch of strangers.

In the words of Arne Saknussemm, the venerable explorer from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth: “I have done this.”

My head was fairly well off on the dawn of our third and last day in Dublin. I’d cheated the hangover gnomes by popping a couple of aspirins and gulping loads of water before bed.

A quick shower, some hasty packing, and a quick tap on my comatose buddy’s shoulder, and we were out of the hostel doors before check-out time. Conveniently, we were still able to stow our bulkier belongings in the closet for later retrieval. Then we had a few hours of quiet in the morning to see whatever we hadn’t seen yet. We set out into the sunlit streets, dodging horse-drawn carts and masses of primary school students.

We found our way to the National Museum, replete with the leathery, mutilated “Bog Bodies”: corpses of brutally murdered Irish kings, flung into peat bogs and preserved for centuries. After that, we slipped a few blocks over to Waterstone’s Books to check on the price of a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses (€10.99), snagged a few last-minute souvenirs on O’Connell Street, and caught the bus for the airport and the plane back to Newcastle.

* * *

The next day was a red-letter affair: the U.S. would be playing Slovenia in the afternoon, and England would face Algeria in the evening. A blowout was planned. My hosts, Adam and Elaine, were inviting a bunch of their friends over. Out of gratitude, Jeff and I offered to cook dinner. Given our status as North Americans, and the Brits being woefully far behind in the science of barbecue, we planned a meal of burgers, ribs, baked beans, corn on the cob, and cornflake potatoes — the latter an honored Eastern Canadian tradition.

The enormity of what I had gotten myself into fully hit me as Adam took us to Morrison’s (the English supermarket chain) on Thursday evening to buy the necessaries. I would be cooking for a bunch of strangers. Furthermore, I would be cooking American barbecue for a bunch of English and Scottish strangers who were probably expecting the kind of Bobby Flay-quality seen on gourmet cooking shows.

I began to breathe quickly as we strolled through the aisles of Morrison’s, plucking meat from the butcher’s rack, cider and beer from the shelves, lettuce and tomatoes and onions and beans and corn and all manner of things. We selected a small £20 grill, a single bag of charcoal, some matches and firelighters, and called it even. We had to haul the lot home in a cab, even though it was only a few blocks.

As Friday wore on, I began to feel like the world itself was crashing down around my ears. The stress began to take its toll. I was in a foreign land, farther from the land of my birth than my mind could encompass, among dear friends but in an unfamiliar setting. My to-do list was long: I had to cancel my flight to London (I’d booked the train instead, for fear of cancellation); reserve a hostel in Edinburgh for the weekend; answer some e-mails; check my finances; pack for Scotland; and, above all, write an article. That was besides cooking a dinner for a mysterious number of people who’d be arriving in three hours. To compound matters, the menu included ribs, something I’d never so much as touched raw, let alone tried to barbecue.

To top that all off, if the U.S.A. lost the match against Slovenia, we’d be out of the race. As a newly-minted football fan, the thought frightened me to the core. My heart began to pound.

The U.S.A.-Slovenia match proved to be a real nail-biter, furthering my risk of early death from heart failure. Missed goals, stolen footballs, and two quick goals by Slovenia — leaving the U.S. trailing 0-2 early on — sent the adrenaline flowing and prayers coursing from my lips. Fortunately for my nerves, the U.S. equalized later in the game and achieved a second draw. That wasn’t necessarily a defeat, but if England won their game against Algeria, they would pull ahead of the States, something that I, even in enemy territory, could not stand to see.

As the day went on, the article was written, the hostel was booked, and the laundry folded and laid on top of my luggage, ready for packing. There remained but to create a meal from a myriad of unrefined components. The grill, which I’d assembled the previous evening, sat in the backyard, black lid glinting in the soft June sunshine. Jeff had fulfilled his obligations, his potatoes, mashed and combined with onions and sour cream and overlaid with a cornflake crust, were simmering in the oven. I had sliced and prepared the vegetables, barbecue sauce, and other condiments, but the grilling itself had yet to be done.

I took a deep breath and stepped out the back door. In my left hand was a tray of ribs, lightly sprinkled with parsley. In my left, the tools of the barbecue man’s trade: tongs, fork, and spatula, all stainless steel beauties. To my right, Adam, Elaine, several of their friends, and Adam’s mum sat and drank beer, chatting cheerfully. Directly ahead stood the grill, staring me down across the narrow concrete sidewalk, its shiny fixings at the ready, smoke and flame no longer issuing from the white-hot coals cupped inside.

It was showdown time.

The grill was too small and the charcoal too primitive to allow the proper slow roasting of the rib racks. I found myself dashing back and forth between the bowl of glaze and the grill, lading one side of the ribs with BBQ sauce only to flip them immediately and begin on the next side. The process went on for eight to ten minutes, until the glaze began to smolder and burn and the meat had acquired a luscious brown color.

Humiliated but recognizing defeat, I took the ribs off the grill, sliced them and served them. I issued a shamefaced disclaimer, saying that these were not, unfortunately, real ribs: normally the meat would be slow-cooked to ensure juiciness and texture, and to allow the spices and glazes to soak in. Nonetheless, I sought approval in the faces of my diners. Wonder of wonders, they were enjoying themselves. Several words of approbation were heard:

“That’s gorgeous, that is.”

“Quite nice.”

“Lovely, Andrew.”

British charcoal is a fickle master. I had been defeated in Round One by its supreme heat and volatile nature. Round Two was sure to be different: high heat would be perfect for well-done hamburgers. Jeff and I molded some burger patties, sprinkled them with salt and pepper, and took them out to the grill. I’d added another measure of charcoal earlier and the grill was ready to go.

Or so I believed, until I held my hand a bare inch over the rack and discovered that the coals were hardly hotter than a warm bath. For some unexplained reason, the first batch of coals had burned hotter than Satan’s bald patch. The second, lamentably, burned much cooler.

I was eventually forced to turn on the oven, and, with Adam’s guidance, bake the hamburgers in the kitchen. Oh, the shame of it. An American, the son of an accomplished outdoor grill-man, brought to his knees by substandard charcoal.

The baked burgers turned out fine, and that was my only saving grace. The twelve guests loaded their buns with ketchup, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, cheese, and nicely-browned burger patties and went in to watch the England-Algeria game. I slapped together a burger, shrugged my shoulders, thanked heaven that it was all over (except for the third rack of ribs now roasting in the oven) and went in to join them.

Trying to shout at the English team for drawing 0-0 with effin’ Algeria, while holding a burger in one hand and a beer in the other, is now an honored tradition in Newcastle.


Coming Next In Part Five: The train to Edinburgh. The author, possessed of no prior knowledge of the city, and also a haggis virgin, attempts to savor the delights of Edinburgh Castle, single-malt Scotch whisky, sheep’s intestines, a climb to Arthur’s Seat, and yet another late-night pub crawl.

Read Part One Here

Part Two Here

And Part Three Here

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