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I READ AN ARTICLE RECENTLY that it started some 1.5 million years ago! Passed down from generation to generation, my quest for grilling perfection started about thirty years ago on a leased ranch in South Texas, around a family made fireplace which I helped to build brick by brick. At this hearth, I watched my Dad cook all the different game we killed. We had a very rigid family rule that if you shot it, you had to eat it – no waste. There was a wide range of game prepared around this hearth: venison, wild pig, nelgi, dove, quail, rabbit, and the occasional rattlesnake. (No, rattlesnake does not taste like chicken.) 

You really need to know your way around a fire pit to cook all the different types of game we had the opportunity to hunt. I loved all of them, but if you asked me which one was my favorite, I would have to say dove. That might seem odd at first, but I base it on the whole experience from start to finish — from opening day, to shooting, finding, cleaning, and the culmination of having a big family BBQ at the end of the season. This is where we shared all the funny, exciting, and sometime scary stories of the hunt – stories about jumping cactus, rattlesnakes and some pretty bad shots. In South Texas, if you have not been peppered by no. 8 shot, you haven’t been dove hunting enough times. 

While this was a fun and exciting time in my life, I also began to pick up that the real way to eat exactly what I wanted was to cook for myself. Embarking into my college life, I realized that if I was going to live alone, I needed to learn how to cook. My mom made me a cook notebook with all of my favorite recipes, which I still reference today. At that time, cooking was not a real passion, it just got me what I needed: dinner. Then I learned I could impress friends on the weekend with homemade beef stroganoff and pot roast. Cooking seemed to come easy to me, while friends and neighbors struggled with taste, consistency and quality. Of course, grilling on a college budget meant grilling hamburgers and hotdogs. Grilling hotdogs is a fine art of char and blistering without burning. You need the right temperature, correct distance from the heat, the ever-present flame and the right dog (Hebrew National). You can make many a friend if you can consistently and correctly do this. I also figured out that I could impress dates with homemade cooking – thanks Mom!

Over the next 20 years, I learned my way around backyard grilling. I was looking to be the best amongst friends and to do so, I learned how to use all four elements: earth for the meat, wood (mesquite) for fire, the right amount of air for the temperature, and sometimes the 4th element, water, for control. Once I get the fire to the desired state, which is always different for different meats, I begin to work with all five of my senses. 

I start with my eyesight, looking for that perfect fire, and I listen to the crackle for the right burn consistency. After I get the steak on, I go by feel, letting the fire breath around whatever I am cooking. When I flip the meat I take notice of its firmness. At this point I might add some more wood for a light smoky aroma. Now that I’ve used 4 of my senses, I figure out the perfect time to pull the meat. Finally, the best and sometimes most rewarding part of grilling is tasting the first bite! Each time I grill, even if it’s the same cut of meat, it will taste slightly different – that’s what makes tasting so rewarding. 

You can read all the cook books, YouTube the latest how-to-grill video, watch neighbors, and ask friends, but the real key is putting in hours, hours, and more hours on the grill. As many say, practice makes perfect, and this is so true when it comes to grilling. 

There is nothing better in my life than a beautiful, sunny, backyard day, with smoke gently rising and friends sharing stories and laughter while I grill. [eHI]

Sam Wilburn moved to the Big Island from Texas 9 years ago. He has a degree in architecture from Texas Tech but, in his heart, is an entrepreneur. He founded Hawaiian Volcano Sea Salt in 2011, and has since grown it into a successful small business.