The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2016 Results

The Beefmaster

Copyright © Rob Walker 2016

It began in early summer. Mid-noughties. Brochures began to arrive in the letterbox or as surreptitious inserts in perfectly ordinary newspapers.

Suddenly it seemed that barbecues were everywhere. And there was no better time to buy. These special prices were never to be repeated. Rock bottom. Sacrificed.

We’d had the old hardwood trolley for nearly twenty years, although in my mind it was still new. Every few years I’d paint it with the orangey outdoor furniture stain. I knew its foibles and idiosyncrasies. It was a little slow – but then so was I. A perfect marriage.

But I had to accept that it was getting a little rickety. And it had caught fire a few times when the fat had ignited the charred the beam across the back. Perhaps it was time to move on.

The coloured photos were indistinct. The blackline sketches in the Bunnings pamphlet were distinct, but looked like, well, sketches really. So we went to Westfield to have a closer look.

The first thing I noticed was that the jarrah trolleys which were de rigeur in the late eighties and early nineties were nowhere to be seen. Where were they now? Museums? Or possibly charred black in the back of sheds, or even chopped up for campfires, floating around in the upper atmosphere as CO2 or melting polar ice-caps.

No. This new generation of barbies was New Millennium stainless steel, with names like Jumbuck – an interesting throwback to the day when our economy rode on the sheep’s back, rather than resources like iron to make stainless steel barbies or selling tertiary degrees to students from Shanghai or Mumbai.

Apparently there had been major developments in the field of Barbecue Technology. Even wok-burners as optional attachments. Perhaps that Hanson woman hadn’t got it right. Perhaps it was Asian barbecues which were swamping the country. They were undermining our cuisine and lifestyle by infiltrating insidious wok-burners and adding them to our traditional icon. It bordered on unaustralian.

This was too much to take in. Like Alvin Toffler and his missus with that Future Shock. But even Future Shock’s gone the way of hardwood barbies now, hasn’t it? I needed time to assimilate this paradigm shift and implement some further research…

It was a real scorcher on the day we went to Barbeques Galore. Even though they couldn’t spell barbecue I felt obliged to be open and flexible and give them a Fair Go. It’s the Australian Way.

My wife, daughter and I had come just to look.

It was a bit of an epiphany, really. (Can you have a bit of an epiphany?) Like walking into the Church of Latter-Day Barbecues. I kid you not. The place verily sparkled with Stainless Steel.

In awe we walked up the aisles. It looked like the Ladies’ Auxiliary had been there before us and whoever had been rostered on had left little votive offerings to the God of Grill. Not flowers, but every kind of condiment or accessory you could ever pray for. Lemon pepper, steak spices, spatulas, aprons, heat beads, fish smokers, hickory chips, wine chillers – the whole Lifestyle Experience.

A disciple approached us and asked how he could help. We explained we were just looking. He nodded knowingly. Then he enquired as to our Barbecue Needs. We said we weren’t really quite sure yet. He was a very understanding person. When we said something was too dear or unnecessary, he totally agreed.

Apparently I was hopelessly ignorant when it came to barbecues (or, as he pronounced it, barbeques), but in his own selfless way this acolyte was unstinting in the time he was willing to sacrifice to put me on the right track. For instance, I had been cooking meat on a solid hotplate for donkeys’ years under the foolish misapprehension that this was 'barbecuing'. Not so. This was in fact 'frying'. True barbecuing necessitated a slatted grill, which I’d never been able to master.

He looked with pity at the Bunnings pamphlet in my hand and candidly suggested we avoid other hardware-related outfits that also sold paint and plumbing. Barbecues (oops! Barbeques) Galore had barbeques as its Core Business and was dedicated to cater to all your Barbeque Needs.

In addition, BG was in the game for the long haul. The 'others' brought in cheap rubbish from offshore to be dumped on an innocent and unsuspecting local market. Barbeques Galore had its products purpose-built (in China) under the strictest specifications. Parts would always be available. They had their own website with customer support and recipes.

I had so much to learn.

The first model we looked at was all very good but you get what you pay for don’t you.

Some parts were not stainless. Others were stainless, but not very thick.

As we walked up the aisle, as if to the altar, the prices rose accordingly.

Under white halogen lighting stood the ultimate. It may have been designed by NASA. It may have contained titanium, carbon fibre or Kevlar. I don’t remember. But I do recall that I would have needed to take out a second mortgage, and offering my existing home as collateral for a barbecue didn’t seem wise for a middle-aged man on a teacher’s wage. So we walked back down the aisle to a mere four-burner, close to the first one we’d seen.

While we’d been chatting the salesman had been subtly assessing how much money we had to dispose of and who controlled the purse-strings. He quickly ascertained it was my wife. (Possibly about the time he asked How much were you looking to spend and I answered I don’t know. How much dear?

After this, he lost interest in both my questions and comments. When I asked if the black plastic bits on the Beefmaster stood up to heat OK he said, "Actually it’s a polymer resin." (Did I detect a sneer, or was this just my own paranoia?)

By now my daughter was urging my wife to just buy it. My wife relented. It was three against one.

This reminded me of buying the Toyota. The pressure. Discussing options and finance. I just wanted it over with.

Having closed the deal, the salesman moved onto accessories. My wife, initially reluctant, was now in a buying frenzy. Once you’d put hundreds on the Mastercard it was easy to add a few more little things – it wasn’t as if the piece of plastic was real money – and before long we’d acquired what the salesman said were the bare necessities.

The Barbecue (see, they could spell) Essentials Pack included superabsorbent Bar-B-Chef Fatsoak, looking, to my neophyte eyes, suspiciously like Kitty Litter, Nice ‘n’ Easy Non-Stick Cooking Oil (which was Nice ‘n’ Expensive), Scrub-brush, a Grill Scraper with a profile perfectly matched to the slats, Barbie Sparkle Heavy Duty BBQ Cleaner (apparently every time you write barbecue, you spell it a different way, but I don’t want to be accused of being an anal pedantic stickler, so we’ll let it ride…)

Oh, and Stainless Steel Cleaner and Polish.

There were also purpose-built covers like the ones that people who do more important work than teachers (eg sell cars, real estate and barbecues) wrap around their Celicas and BMW sports cars, but we thought we’d save our last few dollars in the account for little luxuries like bread and meat.

I forgot the wok. What was the point of having a wok-ring without a wok?

The Beefmaster came in two flat-packs, just like at Ikea. No way was I going to pay someone else a hundred bucks to put together something as simple as a barbecue. I was doubtful that the packs would fit in the little Toyota, but the salesman said she’ll be right let’s just sign the paperwork.

Naturally it didn’t fit. By now my daughter was getting hungry. She complains loudly when she’s hungry and hasn’t learnt Patience yet. She’s only twenty-one. It occurred to me to take the barbie home and leave my daughter at the shop (just for a week or two) but my wife over-ruled me. So I had to drive the two women in my life back up the Hills and return in the station wagon, adding another $20 fuel bill to the Money Pit and contributing further to Exxon-Mobil’s $51 billion profit.

You’re expecting incompetence in the barbecue assembly process, yes? Wrong. There was no dysfunction in the erection department. During that hot afternoon under the shade of the old elm tree in the back lawn I patiently pieced together the Beefmaster like the Meccano of my childhood.

Are you expecting my first sojourn into the hi-tech world of New Millennium Barbecuing to be a disaster? Slipped up again. The Beefmaster performed well and so did I. A little anxious at first, perhaps, having read and re-read The Instructions, but in all modesty I’d have to say I’d provided well for my family and contentedly basked in the reflected glory of Stainless Steel…

But the Beefmaster’s a bastard. It lulls you into a false sense of security.

After several weeks (and several successful barbies of lambchops and steaks) I was beginning to relax. I wasn’t even assiduously reading The Instructions on the Brochure, the Website and the Stainless Steel Hood before Enjoying my Barbeque Experience.

Then came the day of The Accident. I suppose the hapless Ukrainians who by-passed Safety Procedures at Chernobyl went to work on that fateful day in ’86 suspecting nothing. Probably the most ordinary of days. Perhaps their wives reminded them to take out the garbage as they left or pick up some milk on the way home.

And so it was on the day of The Accident.

I hadn’t scrubbed down the hotplates as instructed in the red Preparation and Care booklet. If I look deep into my heart I must also acknowledge that I hadn’t brushed excess food residue from the surface of the hotplates and baffles or used Bar-B-Chef Foaming Oil and Grease Remover on all grills and racks and left for a few hours if necessary to attack fat, grease and carbon build-up as directed in BarbeQue Care Instructions After Every Use.

I am a mere man. I admit that – like any man – I have flaws and weaknesses. But I have learned to embrace myself with all my shortcomings. I try to be honest with myself. I am not a good follower of Instructions.

I pre-heated in the usual way. My attitude had become cavalier. I walked away to check my emails. When my wife called minutes later in mild rebuke haven’t you put the chops on yet I ran back and sealed both sides on the solid left-hand plate.

Herein lay the very seeds of my downfall; I omitted to reduce the burners. Already over-preheated, the chops were cooking out of control. I rapidly transferred them to the grill on the right and closed the hood.

I forgot to turn off the right burners.

Dripping fat from the chops ignited fat on the patented drip-tray and vitreous enamel heat baffles.

In a panic I turned off the right burners and lifted the hood. Giant orange tongues of fire licked up the hood and singed the hairs on my arm. The chops themselves were alight. I dropped the hood. I turned off the remaining burners. But kneeling down before the Beefmaster and looking up from below the drip-tray, I could see the flames at the core were now self-sustaining and the needle on the thermometer was red-lining into meltdown.

By now my wife was under the verandah too, screaming at me to save the chops. But it seemed logical to keep the hood closed to smother the flames and avoid muscle-meltdown of my forearms.

Composure was needed. In movies the hero is always the eye of the cyclone. Think of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, its clone The Magnificent Seven or A Fistful of Dollars. Clint Eastwood is a zen master while those about him run around like headless chooks.

In an emergency I am less Eastwood, more chook.

I ran to the garden shed to get a metal rake to lift the hood without permanently losing the use of my arms. It wasn’t there. A flimsy plastic one stared at me in its place. Reaching manfully for a floral oven mitt and tongs, with no regard for my personal safety, I threw open the hood.

The black chops were retrieved. The fire died out.

We ate the chops in silence. Then my loyal family assured me the chops were not bad if you scraped off the crunchy black stuff.

My Beefmaster was a sacrifice to Vulcan. The once-shiny brushed stainless steel hood was blackened with soot and multi-coloured on the edges by some alchemy of metallurgy.

The following day I got to work with detergent and Stainless Steel Polish and Cleaner for All Metal Surfaces.

A lot of soot came off, but the hood would never be the same again – just a burnished gunmetal grey with black patches like some ancient Greek Fish ‘n’ Chip shop fryer.

The Magic was gone…