I do my grilling over charcoal or wood, as opposed to gas. I’m not really a snob about it, I get the appeal of gas – it’s convenient, it’s cleaner, it takes less time. Still, the ritual of preparation has always been a part of what I enjoy about cooking.

(In the early days, when cooking was unusual for me , I’d make a point of offering small portions of each ingredient to the little spirits that live in my hearth, hoping they’d help with even cooking. It typically worked, but of course, so does practicing the craft until you have less need of supernatural assistance.)

Working with the fire goes something like this: I’ll haul two grills into the driveway, a large Brinkmann and a Weber kettle. Two chimney lighters get filled with Cowboy Charcoal, and I’ll tear some paper from the charcoal bag to stuff under those chimneys. The chimneys go onto the Weber, over the ventilation holes, and I light them up with a match or butane lighter.

While the coals are catching, I scrape the Brinkmann grill and empty the old ash from the bed. That goes directly into the trash bin, which is why my garbage can is streaked with white and grey most of the time.

I’ve come to recognize the signs of lit coals – if the smoke is very slow, the coals probably haven’t caught yet and the paper fuel is just smoldering. That will happen if I’ve wadded up too much paper into too compact a ball, or if the wind isn’t sufficient to really catch it. On a good day, the smoke will come out of two or three areas of the chimney, indicating several lit sections, and within ten minutes the air above the chimneys should be shimmering with heat.

At that point I’ll bring out my oven mitt, tongs, spatula, meat thermometer, and grill spray. Once the coals are ready to go (usually for my purposes, this means there’s medium levels of ash on the uppermost coals and the bottom coals are bright orange) I’ll dump them into the Brinkmann bed. Again, for my purposes, I usually want between two and four dozen coals.

Using a three-tined garden tool, I scrape the coals into a bed about one square foot in diameter. If I’m grilling indirectly, make that two beds, one on each side of the grill. Once it’s heated for a minute or two, I’ll either spray it with the aerosol (Weber makes a version that’s safe to use over live fire. Don’t use regular spray!) Or, if I’m working with meat, I’ll take a chunk of the fat from the meat and use tongs to rub that all over the grill instead.

After that it’s just a question of standing over the fire with a drink in hand, watching and waiting. Most often I’ll close the lid to increase the heat, unless the items need a lot of attention. My flank steak’s the worst for that – between the fats, the marinade, and the proximity of the heat, it causes a lot of flare-ups which are part of the charm.

How do you prep for outdoor cooking? I’m always curious about other people’s food.