Barbecues
STORIES

Words: Daisy Stenham   Photography by Steve Ryan

Barbecues

A barbecue is a confusing social ritual

 

A barbecue is a confusing social ritual, masquerading as a gloried fire picnic one minute, a deconstructed dinner party on legs the next. Barbecues are the Russian dolls of social deception: falling within the nebulous no man's land of picnic/dinner party/al fresco dining, leaving the behavioural customs around it unclear and thus vulnerable to manipulation.
 
Now, clearly the hell of a dinner party is the aspect of entrapment: being imprisoned in small talk with the socially defective brutes you have been lumbered with. So the apparent virtue of a barbecue is that one is untethered, free to roam and mingle accordingly like a genteel swan. Don't be so naive. A barbecue is a cathedral built to the art of hovering, it's the social Wild West, where menacing pockets of small talk sit like malevolent landmines, sprayed erratically in manor of a Jackson Pollock painting.
 
Unlike a dinner party, a barbecue is a ceremony stripped of solemnity, structure, and rules – not to mention no discernible end point. And with no rules anything goes: turn up when you want, bring who you want, eat what you want, when you want. In short: chaos, culminating in room temperature rosé drunk out of coffee mugs and some idiot (invariably yourself) ashing in the half full Taste The Difference hummus pot.
 
Suddenly random hangers on appear, faux apologetic, with a sad corner shop offerings of lukewarm beer and expired burger baps – the ubiquitous black plastic bags violently undercutting your pathetic attempt at a Nigel Slater farmhouse aesthetic.
 
Oh for the blissful honeyed days of hosting past, before three quarters of the population were vegan, fruitarian or gluten intolerant. A moment for the bygone decades when a prawn cocktail, a pork lion, and a black forest gateaux surmised culinary elegance. A period that shall be forever catalogued in our time as BO: Before Ottolenghi. Roll on to 2018 when seitan is the new beef wellington, beetroot tartare, the new prawn cocktail, and diary-free ice cream, the new heartbeat of an Alaskan roll.
 
Hosting a Summer's barbecue today and all of a sudden we're expected to knock out a selection of Yotam's best hits, with the nonchalance and ease as one might prepare a Thatcherite tinned consommé. But not everyone was put on this planet to make an Ottolenghi salad. They are sculptural, delicate, refined architectural masterpieces requiring about forty five ingredients (including pantry essentials like dried barberries), and are not for the fainthearted host. Platters bejewelled with pomegranate seeds, rose hips, torn mint leaves, blood orange segments, artful pinches of dukkah: the scene a rich tapestry of colour. Salads spilling over with voluptuous figs and young pecorino, soaked in honey, like a bountiful, salubrious scene from Vermeer still life. Ottolenghi salad's are advance level hosting: World Cup, blue chip, FTSE 100, standard of hosting.
 
Obviously you mistakenly plan to make three (each equally complicated) but can't back out now that you have smugly broadcasted about it in advance, and have spent somewhere in the region of a thousand pounds buying rosewater, tamarind paste and Za'atar by the bucketload. And so, cut to the morning of: you had planned to be prepping gracefully, sipping a cold glass of Viognier, Otis Redding caressing the summer's air as you marinate fresh market prawns and salt a potato salad, looking fantastically unflappable – in manor of a French yogurt advert.
As if.
 
When the actual morning comes around you're late and hungover, near gurning with stress as you realise, on a frantic tear down every aisle of your local shops that nowhere has firestarters or (more understandably) fennel seeds. And as you (breakfast fag in mouth, Yotam's omniscient eye ever watching) attempt to blanche an asparagus for the first time (along to an overbearingly upbeat YouTube tutorial) on the verge of a breakdown, you question why on earth you signed up to host this barbecue?
 
Of course all food must then be styled to perfection, carefully curated across complimentary clashing crockery, that nods 'antique French flea market' more than it does IKEA or Tiger – where the blue rimmed enamel salad bowl was actually procured, for £2.99. This is your obedient offering to the dead-eyed Instagram servants, so in due time they can shuffle up to the table (as subtle as a gun) and proceed to conspicuously rearrange your fennel and goats cheese salad for the ideal 'Anna Jones' style shot.
 
Be warned, this complex assault course of hosting will be made all the more infuriating when (three gin and tonics to the wind) you see a key vegetarian necking a prawn tempura in plain sight. 'I'm sort of veggie at the moment' they bleat back with no real remorse as you sweat over the grill dutifully browning their Linda McCartney mozzarella burgers.
 
At this point you must stay vigilant because a certain type of guest, the 'praying mantis of passive aggressive advice', will launch at your most flustered, ready to fire patronising comments about the right way to grill halloumi. Sober or drunk they are equally unbearable to deal with, and are normally found loitering next to the barbecue, watching you with a somewhat pained expression, before they can bare it no longer and lean in to strike. Why is this acceptable? Would one get up mid dinner party, prowl their way malevolently over to the kitchen to deliver some passive aggressive bullets to the host on how to cook their prawn linguine? I think not.
 
A barbecue is a surprisingly precarious beast, where arguably the worse elements of a picnic and a dinner party are fused together into a hellish hybrid of regrettable social customs. The deceptive air of 'anything goes' does nothing but fuel the fire of complete social social anarchy where the worst guests become venomous drunken despots and the host quietly suffers on: a bottle of Viognier to the wind, a broken bank balance, and the promise they will never do this again. Until next Summer.....