How One Texas Transplant in NYC Found Refuge Through the Universal Language of Barbecue
She learned that you can find a little bit of home in any backyard—no matter its size.
My childhood is a study of what folks can do in a backyard. In ours, we pitched tents and played house; we made swings and hung them from trees. My father was less than pleased with what we did with his water hose to achieve that project. My sisters and I built a tree house that was so rickety it didn’t last a week. We gave up when I managed to fall out of it. It’s a wonder I didn’t break a leg. But mainly, my family cooked.
It’s hot in Texas, and we didn’t have an air conditioner. So on Fridays we went out to the backyard to have a fish fry. And in my father’s opinion, “Where else would you fry fish?” On Saturdays, my father would argue with himself. Chicken or beef? Beef or chicken? And once that was settled, Dad would marinate a brisket, heavy on the pepper, and pull up a lawn chair. Billows of smoke would unfurl from the oil drum my uncle Herman had wrought into a smoker and given to my father as a wedding gift.
The sight was arresting in the jungle that was my Dallas backyard. Wild grass reached my father’s knees. From the porch, my sisters and I would watch him murmur. “I should have put in more pineapple juice. More garlic powder. Where did that paprika go?” His worry circled the 20 pounds of brisket in the smoker. What he didn’t do is lift the lid.
When we weren’t barbecuing in our backyard, we headed across town to cook on my uncles’ and cousins’ lawns. My dad was from Arkansas and was a beef man; my uncles were raised in Georgia and loved pork.
“You know why I love pork?” my uncle Fonz would ask my dad.
“’Cause pork loves me.” I think my father lost those arguments mainly because he was outnumbered.
I’d like to say that when I moved to New York City at 18, the things I missed most were playing, sleeping, and cooking in our backyard. It stands to reason, since I had spent most of my childhood out there. But the fact is, its absence was thrilling. I would spend hours on the phone with my dad explaining the mind-boggling state of your average New York backyard.
First of all, nobody has a lick of grass.”
“Oh, come on! You’re messing with me.”
“No, Daddy, it’s true. They’ve got grass in the park and that’s it.”
“Even the rich folk?”
“Even the rich folk, Daddy. Best they can do is put these little bitty trees in planters on their balconies.” “Lord. Well, I’ll be.”
It took moving to Astoria, Queens, 12 years ago to miss my childhood backyard. My neighborhood is a combination of three-family apartment buildings and multistory housing complexes. The sidewalks are filled with people hawking their wares: cellphone cases, sunglasses, scarves. All of us—Japanese, Egyptian, Bulgarian, Mexican, Tibetan, Greek—fondle their merchandise. One day, minding my own business (as New Yorkers are wont to do), I smelled smoke. And it wasn’t the smell of a building burning down.
It was the very distinctive odor of fire and meat coming together. I asked my Japanese neighbor across the street what they were doing.
“What is it, exactly?” I looked at the square box they stood next to. The grill was latticed. The meat—chicken, beef, and pork—was cut into discrete pieces and bunched together on metal skewers.
“Taste it.” My father used to tell me, if it wasn’t wiggling too much, put it in your mouth. Eating food people offer is the fastest way to make friends. What I chewed was salty and just a touch sweet. My neighbors were grinning at me. I’m pretty sure I was grinning too. I had moved to Queens and found my people.
From then on, I seemed to smell smoke everywhere. The Bosnians down the block were grilling these little sausages; the Cambodians an avenue away were charring satays. Best of all, my butcher became my close friend. John Kosmidis was not a man deterred by a pint-size backyard. When he roasted a baby lamb on a spit for Greek Easter at his in-laws’ apartment building, I was invited. There was enough room for six of us to stand shoulder to shoulder and pluck meat just as it was done. That first year in Queens was a heady one, and it got me thinking: “If all these people can cook like this in backyards the size of postage stamps with not a blade of grass to be found, why can’t I?”
It wouldn’t be the same as back home, but so what? Standing in the corner of our mostly concrete backyard is my Weber smoker. I don’t get to cook the way we did in Texas. In a city, one is forced to share. My backyard is communal property; I’ve got to find out who is planning something on any given day. I don’t get to sleep next to my smoker in a lawn chair like my father did. I check the temperature with a pair of binoculars from my window. I tote platters of beer-butt chicken and Kansas City–style pork ribs and brisket—complete with a Texas napkin—up and down three flights of stairs. There’s not a speck of grass or a lick of shade. But when I take a bite of brisket with a dill pickle slice on top, I think to myself, “Wherever you are, you can find your happiness in a backyard.”
Reynolds is a novelist who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. Her second book, The Shape of Dreams, is forthcoming.