It was about two weeks before Father’s Day, and the day before my wedding. And as you know, most grooms don’t get wedding gifts that are actually for them. But I was lucky.
You see, my future father-in-law, Virgil Cordes, aka. The Saint (that’s another story), fancied himself a grilling expert. So, one of the wedding gifts from the “family” was a shiny new stainless steel gas grill.
I had heard stories upon stories about the amazing meals Virgil could pull off using the grill. I was in awe of the man, and elated about this grill gift.
So anyway, back to wedding eve. My wife, Gay, who grew up in Minnesota, had all of her northern relatives come to Kansas City for the wedding. I guess that’s what they do. And since the whole family was in town, they decided the new grill should get a test run at our house for the pre-wedding party.
There was a light rain, so we opened up the garage door of our Waldo ranch house and placed the grill near the opening. I let Virgil handle the new grill. I saw how the hierarchy was working. His brothers, all with beers in hand, gathered around and offered grilling advice in between sports talk, fishing tales and Ole and Lena jokes. I didn’t really participate since I was the new son-in-law that was, according to Gay’s mom, “only a stereo salesman.”
Brats were loaded onto the pristine grill grates. The lid was left open the whole time.
Smoke was billowing everywhere, the beer was flowing, and flair ups were so common that my internal pyro was really getting excited. There was so much smoke and fire that it took us weeks to clean off the accumulated grease and soot from the inside of the garage door and windows. But I didn’t care. I thought this is the way grilling is supposed to be. You see, we didn’t grill much in my family growing up … so I didn’t know any better. And I so couldn’t wait to try this on my own.
When the brats were served, there was no question that this pork was fully cooked. In fact, the brats were so charred that bits were actually flaking off when you bit into them. They were good. Or at least I thought they were. Everyone seemed to be enjoying them. I figured that since these guys are from Minnesota, they knew the way to cook brats.
Now came my turn. It’s the Fourth of July. We had some friends over so I decided to cook for them on my brand-new gas grill. In fact, I decided I was going to cook brats — Minnesota style. Just the way I was taught. I turned the grill to high, put the brats directly over the leaping flames and for heaven’s sake, this was pork, so I needed to thoroughly cook it through and through .
As I served the Minnesota-style brats with their blackened armor falling to the ground, I noticed that everyone’s face was kind of scrunched up. In fact, nobody seemed to enjoy these fully cooked brats.
“You know these are burnt, right?” said one of my friends.
“I’ll pass,” said his waif-ish girlfriend.
My first time out with the grill turned out to be utter failure. I was mortified. It was right then and there I decided that I was going to master the grill. And master it I did.
I read everything that I could. And more importantly, I started cooking outside every day of the year — or at least 300-plus days a year — for years upon end. I really enjoy cooking outside because I think the food tastes better and hey, let’s face it, it’s a heck of a lot more fun.
Shortly after that fateful Fourth of July, my wife and I started moving all over the country due to my job. Because of that, we didn’t see her family as much as we once did. As our address changed (seven times in 10 years), so did the grills. In fact, I no longer use a gas grill. I prefer charcoal. But that’s another story.
At some point, I thought it would be fun to cook with Virgil to show him what I had learned over the years. He would be proud. Maybe I’d cook the Thanksgiving turkey some year. This stereo salesman son-in-law, now district manager son-in-law, could finally do something right. Someday I thought. Someday.
We got the call mid-morning while we were living in Albuquerque. It was spring. Gay just dropped the phone and stood in stunned silence. Virgil had died suddenly, with no warning. The family was devastated. We’d lost our Saint.
On our next wedding anniversary in June, Gay requested that I cook up some brats for dinner. Just for the memories. Of course over the years, I’ve perfected the brat from something that used to look like a charcoal crayon to a lovely plump, glistening and juicy treat that everyone loves.
As I was cooking, I was thinking to myself … I really did want Virgil to see what I had accomplished. I wished that we would have had the chance to cook together.
In fact, if I could have that chance, I’d even cook brats his way … just for one last time. I wouldn’t even mind spending the weeks it would take to clean up all of the grease smoke off the garage door and windows. It would be worth it.
Father’s Day is coming up. And I’m thinking of Virgil again. If you’ve been thinking about cooking with a loved one, do it sooner than later. There’s something about cooking together that helps to break down barriers. You joke, share ideas, chat about nothing and of course, you get to eat together. The rewards are plenty.
The Perfected Brat
6 to 8 brats
Set up your grill for a two-zone fire. A two-zone fire means having heat on one side and no heat on the other side. If using a charcoal grill, put all of your lit charcoal on one side and nothing on the other side. If using a gas grill, just ignite one side. Note: Some gas grills light front to back versus side to side. In that case, light the back half of the grill and keep the front half off.
If using a charcoal grill, add a chunk of smoking wood or chips that have soaked in water for 30 minutes and then drained directly onto the fire and place the lid back on the grill ensuring that the vents are over the brats. If you have a gas grill with a smoker box, follow those directions and then close the lid.
After the grill has heated for at least 10 minutes and the grates are cleaned, place your favorite brats on the side of the grill without the fire — the indirect cooking method. Cook until done, about 20 minutes or until an internal temperature of 160 degrees is reached. Remove from grill and serve with your favorite buns and condiments.
Try this method once and you’ll be hooked. The flavor of the brat will be rich with intense sweet smoke essence and you won’t have the dried out crunchy brat that we’ve all had before.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a master student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.