The extremes of Minnesota weather seem an unlikely place to forge a great love for outdoor grilling. The average high from December to March hovers around 25 degrees. In the summer, it skyrockets to a humid 80. Yet in the northern burbs of Minneapolis, James Damarr — a machinist in a family-owned business — has become a devoted griller by smoothly blending a good-ole-boy attitude with a Zen-like perspective.
What’s the draw to grilling in such bitter cold?
You have to develop a certain mindset. I tell people it’s reminiscent, I suppose, to grilling on the dark side of the moon — no lights, no heat, and you gotta wonder why you’re out there sometimes. But then you buddy up next to a glowing bed of coals, and it’s not bad at all. There’s a comradeship being with the coals and the moon reflecting blue off the snow. There’s great poetry in winter grilling.
Why not wait until summer?
In Minnesota, if we wait for the perfect day to grill, we’d be waiting a very long time. It’s too much fun to put off for half your life.
What happens when you grill in sub-freezing weather?
I’ve had my brush freeze solid in my barbecue sauce. It kinda made a barbecue-sicle. Many times I have to dig out my pit from under a few feet of snow. This last winter was anemic, but it was still dark.
It can be 14 hours a day of darkness in the middle of December. But you’re under the stars. Sometimes I use a headlamp; sometimes I just cook by moonlight. My lawn chair’s not so enjoyable on those days. I go inside and kick up proper in the man-chair…my recliner.
Your favorite barbecue tool is a chair?
My lawn chair. Half the fun of barbecuing is in the loitering. Hanging out with the lovely curing plumes of smoke and the aroma of beef or chicken or pork. I love to kick back and have the game on the radio. I kick my feet up with a lovely beverage on-hand and watch the smoke curl from my barbecue.
Favorite cut of meat?
Ribs. I love ribs, because here’s a piece of meat that I cannot master. Nine out of 10 times, I get it right. But there’s always a chance I’ll screw up. It’s like dating a new woman — I’m never sure it will work out. But when you get them right, they’re so good.
You must own a bunch of grills?
I only have two. I’m a minimalist that way. One kettle grill for hot and fast, and a smoker for low and slow. That’s all I need.
Charcoal or gas?
Well, I would say in my ideal world, neither. It would be wood. If I could. That’s the most poetic to cook over. However, I don’t often have a pile of wood, so I just throw hunks of hickory, oak or apple over the coals. I also cook with lump charcoal — it’s a nice blend between charcoal and real wood.
Where do you screw up in grilling?
Adding too much wood when I’m smoking. That’s led to all kinds of things that tasted akin to an ashtray. I’ve learned that smoke should be a seasoning and not an ingredient.
What’s the tool most people don’t use but should?
A cast iron frying pan — for doing things that fall through grates, like onions and beans.
Favorite thing to grill?
Nothing moves me quite as good as a steak. Man and steak go together quite well. Woman and steak go together quite well, too.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve grilled?
I was given a beaver one day. It looked like a sack of bloody meat. I didn’t know how to cook a beaver, so I had to wing it using my pit master instincts. I ended up brining it to leech out some of its nasty beaverness. I don’ know if beaver was nasty, but it’s an aquatic rodent, and it didn’t look that good.
How do you cook beaver?
I cooked it low and slow bathed in hickory smoke for three hours, then swaddled it in foil soaked in barbecue sauce, and steamed it. It was like sending your meat to the spa. It really loosens things up. I figured a beaver ought to need that. When I took it out, it was falling apart like pulled pork.
How was it?
I really liked it. I thought it reminiscent of pulled beef with a slight twang. It’s still the oddest thing I’ve cooked.
What’s the most difficult thing you’ve learned from barbecuing?
That would be patience. It doesn’t work to rush barbecue. It’s its own dance. Better to slow down with it — everything goes better if you slow down.