The barbecue season is just around the corner. So how do you host a successful cookout, and what is the etiquette for guests? Tony Naylor offers some tips
It’s almost barbecue season in the UAE – think you’re picnic ready? You’re wrong. Here’re the new rules for BBQs – and please, provide meat-free options.
Barbecues often remain impromptu, throwntogether affairs, which may explain why many are terrible. Despite the sunshine, barbecue-wise we are fumbling around in the dark. It’s time to change that. Read on for the ultimate barbecue etiquette guide.
There is never enough food at barbecues. Partly because they are frequently organised in a lastminute frenzy (you thought that chicken would defrost in time, it hasn’t; everyone has had the same idea and stripped the supermarket aisles bare), but also because that on-the-fly status encourages a lack of commitment. Whether given 24 or, more commonly, two hours’ notice, do not lurk in a WhatsApp group, waiting to see who else is going. Don’t respond with a vague: ‘We’ll try to swing by.’ Not if you want feeding, anyway. Hosts detest dithering guests.
Don’t sweat the guest list
That tradition of painstakingly introducing strangers to one another at informal social gatherings – with its implicit, terrifying instruction to ‘mingle’ – is dying out (thankfully). Instead, at a barbecue, the ragbag of friends, family and even colleagues that you were able to dragoon at short notice will settle into familiar subgroups and begin to interact as the bbq heats up. As host, do not force the issue. In time, the fumes from the roasting meats will work its magic.
Gatecrashers are not welcome
There is a thin line, perhaps, between the barbecue and the house party. But it exists. You cannot arrive with three mates in tow, unannounced. Food is being cooked. Hosts need confirmed numbers.
Turn up late
Arrive before time and the host will still be racing around local stores, trying to buy some firelighters, charcoal or even a barbecue.
Beware anti-social media
Check the host is cool with you ‘sharing’ the fun in a run of excruciating #BBQ #nomnomnom #pitmaster hashtags. They may not want to advertise the event to those they didn’t invite.
Be a good neighbour
Warn your neighbours. They do not want to come home to find their drying washing now smells like a fire in an abattoir and they deserve to know that, while they try to relax in the garden, you will be playing Katy Perry’s Firework cranked up to 11 through a tiny, treble-drenched, tinnitus-inducing portable speaker. But are you obliged to invite them? No. Unless your neighbours are ‘mates’, there are many good reasons you might not want them to meet yours.
Know your limits ...
... or the limits of your barbecue. Do not invite 20 if your grill can only accommodate six burgers at a time. Do not, at the eleventh hour, attempt an 18-hour low’n’slow lamb shoulder. This is partly good manners – guests will arrive hungry, do not make them wait aeons.
Respect your environment
You are outside. Barbecue hosts expect mess. That does not mean you can leave the place a total mess. Use the designated ashtray. Do not tread dropped hotdogs into the decking, stale burger buns into the lawn or chuck chicken bones into the borders. Many hosts will leave rubbish bags out and may ask you to split up bottles, paper plates, food and general rubbish, to save them the hassle of sorting it later. You may find that fussy, but it is no hardship to comply. No host should expect you to help tidy up, but do not make that job harder.
Provide meat-free options
A certain breed of living troll will always find the concept of a meat-free barbecue hilarious. Presumably such throwbacks do not invite vegetarians to their cookouts. It would be as immature as a vegan accepting the invitation, turning up in a Meat is Murder T-shirt and making retching noises every time someone bites into a sausage. If you invite someone who does not eat meat (or has other dietary restrictions), it is incumbent on you to provide an alternative. It is insulting to expect them to make do with salad. And vegetarians: if you want to ensure you will eat well, offer to bring
If you invite someone who does not eat meat, it is incumbent on you to provide an alternative. It is insulting to expect them to make do with salad
some barbecue sauce-basted tofu or a few marinated cauliflower steaks. It will be a weight of the host’s mind.
The standard barbecue contract is: the host feeds you and you bring some snacks if you are asked to pitch in. Provide snacks, sides or salads, stay humble. This is not about you or your cooking prowess. It is about helping the host feed a general, usually non-foodie audience. You may make a terrific panzanella or nicoise salad but, heavy with carbs or protein, neither are barbecue side salads. Likewise, arriving with a Thai-style chilli, peanut and watermelon salad is deeply passive-aggressive. Your contributions need to be a) suitable, b) crowd-pleasing, and c) things you can prepare beforehand and serve with minimum fuss.
You cannot commandeer the kitchen on arrival, much less the barbecue to grill courgettes. Bring things that make burgers and steaks sing (kimchi, coleslaw, chimichurri); classic simple, fresh salads (a well-dressed green or tomato salad); or salads that have a natural affinity with charred meat (tabbouleh, grilled chipotle corn and avocado or smoky, lemony griddled vegetables).
More is better
The fridge will be full and, invariably, by the time you arrive, so will that bucket/bin/old storage container of iced water the host has provided. Chill your soft drinks at home, take them in a cool bag and, if you have been nominated for mocktail duty, bring what you need: ice, fruit, juices, mixers, knife, shaker etc. The kitchen will be busy. The last thing the host wants is people in and out looking for limes, ice or a bottle of lemon juice. The best guests stay out of the way.
No cook wants people giving their opinion on the food they are preparing but, at barbecues, even well-intentioned interjections can quickly descend into a testy, territorial jockeying. If a cook is failing to light a barbecue because they have not opened the vents, they will not thank you for pointing this out. Is the ‘grill master’ incinerating the food over roaring flames? Well, unless you are about to be served raw chicken, get a lemonade and ignore it. Because, not unsurprisingly, insisting that they let the charcoal turn white first will quickly sour the atmosphere – you are in their home, essentially calling them useless.
Credit due, you make exceptional grilled leg of lamb. But no one cares about your wifi-enabled Pro Chef 3000X. Droning on about what this ‘bad boy’ can do is talk so small it is almost infinitesimal.
Wear a comedy apron ...
... at your peril. They are never funny.
Footballs and barbecues do not mix (neither do Nerf guns, water bombs etc). Parents: control your children as you would your dogs. Pen them in somewhere, away from the grill – if not for their own safety, for the host’s sanity.
Announce you are serving food
Give everyone equal opportunity to eat, rather than slipping it out on the QT to the tacticians who have chosen to hover around the grill.
Set up a table
A table a short distance from the grill is useful first as a mocktail station. Then, as the food is served, put everything on it: meat, buns, cheese, sauces, salads, plates and forks. People can assemble their food there, to their own preference. Too many barbecues are spoiled by the ‘pit boss’ foisting what he or she likes, or what is simple to serve, on guests, rather than letting them choose.
Slow down on second helpings
We see you. Sneaking back in for seconds before everyone has eaten. And your children will carry this mark of shame for generations.
Dress down and get involved
In the limited existing literature about barbecue etiquette, there is some consternation about the fact that some guests will have to eat standing up. No one has enough emergency chairs in the loft to go round. If you are too precious to sit on the grass, perch on a step or balance your drink on the compost bin then, frankly, barbecues are really not for you.
Be ready to get messy
There is a (deluded) school of thought that a barbecue host should cater to your every comfort, from wet wipes and toothpicks to endless cutlery. This is absurd. Is there kitchen roll to wipe your fingers and face? Then we are good to go. It is impossible to eat barbecue food elegantly. Even trying to ruins it.
Ignore the bugs
If you are over the age of 12, do not run through the garden screaming at the appearance of a wasp. It is infuriatingly attention-seeking.
An afternoon barbecue will run into the evening; an evening barbecue will run late. You know the rules. If the host has put the lid on the barbecue and is roaming around, collecting rubbish and empties, take the cue. It’s been lovely. But, come on, pack up and ship out.