The Thrill of the Grill

The art of “cooking out” is universal and ancient. It is intoxicating and exciting. It brings people together. Whether grilling with high heat for short periods of time, or the “slow and low heat” method of barbecue, that smoke really gets a hold on us. The copious amounts of shows, books and competitions based on grilling show us  that humans have an intense passion for food in the flames, and that it can be even further developed with methodology and regional styles.

Duval Style

We all know that from Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, The Carolinas and everywhere in between, there are regional differences in style and technique. So how does Duval do? Surveys say dark meat chicken is our “go to” meat of choice, though we also cook a lot of ribs, and of course have a great supply of local seafood like blue crabs and Mayport Shrimp. We like a sweet and spicy rub and a good char. We tend to use charcoal more than gas and add wood chips right to the coals. We typically leave the sauce off until after cooking. Pat Hull of Durkeeville likes to use the real-deal 100% oak wood coal, which smokes the meat itself during cooking. She and other residents like to get a lot of smoke in during normal grilling.

What stands out the most in Jacksonville is our ingenuity. People love to make things themselves and get pretty creative with their devices and methods. Drive around residential areas and you will see some mammoth homemade grills and smokers front and center in yards, often with large crowds lingering about–even on week days and in bad weather! Drive around the business districts and you see pop-up stands in parking lots and on the sides of roads with people selling food right from these incredible devices that they have made themselves.

Liam Dowling Wings

Northside residents Isaac and Lorenzo Hall decided they wanted to grill on a seriously large scale, so they built a couple of beastly grills that they welded together from old propane tanks. “Big Daddy,” the largest, can hold 16 slabs of ribs or 25 whole chickens. “Little Daddy” can hold 15 whole chickens. The bases of the grills are massive cylinders that open directly to take logs of good local wood for wonderful smoky heat. From family gatherings to fundraisers for their church, most weekends Isaac can be found grilling for large crowds. The weekend I spoke with him, he was catering a baby shower, which definitely illustrates that baby showers are coolest in Duval. Mike Ramsey, Executive Chef at Jacksonville Golf and Country Club and avid home griller is known for his DIY creations and has made smokers out of a filing cabinet and a heating oil drum. Some people just need lots of grills for all kinds of occasions. John Sinclair of Atlantic Beach keeps a grill and kit in his truck in case needs to cook out on the fly. He made his own charcoal smoker by changing out an electric one he found on the side of the road. Then he has a third regular grill he uses for regular grilling.

We can’t talk about Jacksonville grilling without mentioning tailgating and boatgating (yes, boatgating is a thing.) Both are centered around grilling and often feature several cooking stations going at once with groups sharing and sometimes even hosting competitions. People are serious about these sports centered, outdoor parties and some of the biggest events of the year are outside of Everbank Field in lots and docks along that stretch of the St. Johns. Florida-Georgia Week brings in people from all over the region and is one of the biggest around. The Jaguar Games bring out the tailgating and boatgating even with practice games and preseason. There are people who show up just to tailgate and never even go inside, because that would mean leaving the mobile parties full of superior food.  Springfield resident and local grill legend John Ford is a great example of ingenuity and passion. He has created a device to pull a grill station behind his bike, allowing him to easily peddle over to the tailgate parties with his whole set up and avoid traffic and maybe have a few more beers than normal.

Liam Dowling - Uncooked

Rubs and Sauces

Rubs are a great way of adding flavor and a crisp outside that seals in juices during cooking, and they can be made up of just about anything. Premade rubs are sold everywhere and are even branded by celebrity chefs, but making your own is the most fun, and it’s what a lot of locals do. Ground black pepper, salt, cumin, dried garlic or garlic paste, brown sugar, paprika, and dried chili pepper are popular ingredients, but don’t be afraid to get creative and try less traditional ingredients in your rubs. Experiment by adding something new like curry powder, finely ground coffee, cardamom, berbere, grated orange peel or cocoa powder.

Sauce can be used a couple of different ways. Jacksonville uses it as most of the country does; as a condiment post-cooking. I’m from Missouri and though I love the plain and smoky meat without added fuss, I know why cooking with the sauce on is so good. Slathering sauce on 15 to 20 minutes towards the end of cooking gives a new layer for smoke absorption that quickly develops a complex and yummy thick texture. Even locals do use this technique on chicken wings sometimes, but it is great on all chicken, ribs and most other cuts of pork.

The range in flavors for sauce is incredible. Often home grillers have their own secret recipe, like John Ford whose famous 1901 sauce is bottled and sold to friends and neighbors. Traditional ingredients are similar to rubs, but often have a base such as tomato sauce, vinegar or mustard. Whiskey, beer, soy sauce, molasses, fruit juice and honey are also commonly added. Try shaking things up by adding ginger paste, shallots, sesame oil, tamarind paste or almond extract. I like to puree dates for a thicker and stickier sauce.

Shrimp Recipe and Photo by Mike Ramsey 2

Gas vs Charcoal

As with everything in life, what is hardest is usually the best. Gas is easier to control, set and clean, but it does little to lend flavor to the food. Charcoal is where the flavor lies. It is messy, it inexact, and it is delicious. There are two main types of coal. Briquettes are the most common. These are made from coal dust mixed with chemical binders and compressed into small uniform shapes. There are also 100% wood charcoal that gives off better smoke and flavor, but burns faster and hotter and can be difficult to control. As far as lighting these coals, word on the street is do not use lighter fluid or quick light charcoal. Get a chimney to quickly start your coals and avoid that chemical taste. These can be picked up for as little as $12, so they will recover their worth quickly.

Think Outside the Box

If you can cook it, you can probably grill it, and it will most likely taste way better. Try grilling fruits such as pineapple, pears, plantains and strawberries. Experiment with vegetables like cauliflower, okra, baby bok choy and whole carrots.  Cut a head of romaine lettuce in half lengthwise and brush with some olive oil and sea salt on medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes. The lettuce develops a wonderful texture and deep smoky flavor that is great by itself or made into a salad. Bake flat breads right on the grill. Local ingredients and “in season” ingredients are going to be fresher and inspiring. Try datil peppers, peaches and different local fish. There aren’t a lot of rules, as grilling is a free form art style. Though some say beer is mandatory. Have fun grilling this summer! And winter, because we are in Florida, ya’ll!

Pro Tips

  • To help ignite the coals while avoiding lighter fluid, you can use vegetable oil for coating your kindling to get a quicker and longer burn. Lightly coat the paper before stuffing under the chimney or your stack of coals.

  • Keep a spray bottle of water handy to combat flare ups with charcoal.

  • Always keep the grill well oiled.

  • Don’t crowd the grill.

  • Don’t rely on the thermometer built into the grill lid. This will not give an accurate reading of the cooking space or the food.

  • Don’t place meat thermometer in fat or touching bone as it will throw off the reading.

  • Soak wooden skewers at least 20 minutes before cooking to prevent burning. Two skewers per kabob is best so the food does not spin uncontrollably during flipping.

  • John Sinclair says despite what the packages say, do not soak your wood chips.

  • Learn to understand and take control of direct and indirect heat to get cook sears and chars, but cook to finish without drying out.

  • Get a louvered/hinged grill so that you can add and adjust coals more easily.

  • Toast the bread you will be serving right on the grill.

  • Meat absorbs more smoke flavor when uncooked and under 125 degrees. Keep meat cold right up until time to place on grill.

  • Let meat rest for 10 to 15 minutes before cutting or serving in order for the juices to set.

  • Chef Ramsey recommends not cleaning the grill after use, but let it sit until the next session so that the grease and gunk helps protect from rust.


About Kamron Perry