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Two-Alarm Chicken
by Barry Lazar
In my neighbourhood, the rites of spring don't start with the sighting of the first robin or the budding of huge silver maples that line our street. My neighbours know that winter is officially over when smoke billows from the Lazar balcony.

This is an ignominious distinction which I share with other male members of my clan. As far as I can tell, Lazar men have been burning large pieces of meat over outdoor fire-pits for generations. It would not surprise me if future discoveries of prehistoric cave paintings show a Lazar searing his fingers with a haunch of Jurassic brisket held inexpertly over glowing coals. To be accurate, the painting would also show him attacking the meat with a long handled basting brush. Nearby, would be a gourd of secret sauce.

This is what it is all about, the basics of survival: fire, food and an innate ability to cover up the acrid taste of charred meat with several layers of carmelized muck.

Barbecue has an unclear etymology. Some say it comes from the Spanish "barbacoa" which is a raised platform used to keep an ox or sheep above the flames. Others think it's a French idiom to describe roasting an animal from "la barbe à la queue" (from the beard to the tail). The female members of my family believe that no matter it's roots, the word really means "look at what that idiot is doing now."

Barbecuing is a deeply primal activity. There could be other, subconscious reasons why men are intuitively drawn to cooking outside the kitchen. These may include a return to nature, the sensual pleasure of working with ones hands, and the gratification of providing sustenance for friends and family. While important, these are secondary to the fundamental reason for barbecuing: playing with fire.

Great barbecue chefs know that this is what it is all about. Paul Prudhomme, master Cajun chef and originator of the all-time-greatest-playing-with-fire meal, "blackened redfish," understands this. Word for word, here is how the recipe for this truly magnificent dish begins. "Heat a large cast-iron skillet over very high heat until it is beyond the smoking stage and you see white ash in the skillet bottom (the skillet cannot be too hot for this dish), at least ten minutes."

Now, that's cooking.

My own claim to membership in the Barbecuing Hall of Fame rests with what is locally known as "two-alarm chicken."

Before I tell you how to make this unique dish, you should know that the Second Annual Weber Canadian Barbecue Survey found that successful barbecuing secrets include "using wood chips" and "cooking slowly on low heat with the lid down." Among the most common mistakes, is "constantly lifting the barbecue lid to check the coals and the food while it's cooking."

With this in mind, I lit the fire and, once the coals were ready, added a few chunks of apple wood to give the chicken a smoky flavor. I covered the grill and went inside the house to do some work.

Soon after, one of the family heard walkie talkies outside. Looking down from the balcony, we noticed the helmets, yellow overcoats and axes which distinguish fire fighters from, say, telephone company repairmen.

I ran to the balcony as two hook and ladder trucks pulled up to the house. I lifted the hood off the barbecue and, with gloved hands, held an impressively carbonized bird over the balcony railing for all to see. I thought this gave the scene an heroic touch, much as Caesar might have done, had he bestowed barbecued chicken instead of laurels upon the crowd below.

To their credit, the firemen put down their hoses and cheered. One of them came upstairs. He asked about the kitchen smoke detector which at that time was doubling as a hat rack. He told me to give the fire department a warning call the next time I made a barbecue.

There is no recipe for great barbecue. There is only trial and error. There is heat and passion and the exquisite sense of timing that lets you know when the smoked chicken or barbecued ribs are ready. The slower the better. Barbecue is to summer what beer is to barbecue.

If you put the meat on a slow cooking, covered barbecue, and keep the temperature between 180 and 250 degrees. It should take about a six pack, that's a beer an hour, to do it right.

My inspiration for my approach to barbecue, and living graciously in general, comes from a wonderful newsletter called "Simple Cooking" by John Thorne and Matt Lewis Thorne. They can be reached at

This recipe will work for both ribs and chicken.

For the rub
6 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons of sea salt
to taste: cayenne, chili pepper, freshly ground black pepper, cumin (at least a teaspoon of each)
some olive oil

For the mop
one onion, chopped fine
1/4 cup olive oil
1/8 teaspoon each salt and pepper
1 cup of cider vinegar
1 cup of beer

For the sop
Your favorite commercial barbecue sauce
or 1/2 cup of ketchup added to left over Mop

Split the chicken down the back. Turn it over (skin up) and flatten it out with your hands. If using ribs, remove as much fat layered on top as is easily possible.

Prepare the rub by crushing the garlic into a paste with the salt. Add the rest of the spices and enough oil to make it smooth but not liquid.

With your hands, massage the rub into the meat. Let it sit covered, overnight, in the refrigerator.

To prepare the mop, dice the onion well and cook it slowly in the oil. When it becomes translucent, add the cider and beer. Bring this to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer for about 10 minutes. Store in the refrigerator.

The next day start the fire before noon. If using coals, you'll need a full pan. If using a gas barbecue with a smoking attachment, bring it up to about 350 and then reduce it to about 225 when you put the meat in.

In either case, do not have the meat in contact with the flames. Either separate it with a water bath, or rack the coals to one side of the pan, or only use one burner of a gas grill. The key is long slow cooking with no flare ups.

When the fire is ready add the smoking chips (apple or maple are best) and the meat. Check the heat every hour, adjusting it and adding coals as necessary. Baste it with the mop at the same time.

Do not baste with barbecue sauce until the last 15 minutes or so because the tomato or sugar in the sauce will carmelize and burn.
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