Since 1894, when it became an official federal holiday recognizing America’s workforce, Labor Day has given many Americans the first Monday of September off, creating a bit of an oxymoron and a three-day weekend. Unofficially, it marks the end of summer, adding a whiff of wistfulness to the celebration. (Cue John Prine’s “Summer’s End.”)
Tradition calls for Americans to hit the road for season-finale trips to the beach, the lake, the mountains; to gather family and friends, fire up the grill and send summer off with burgers and dogs, potato salad, corn on the cob, home-grown tomatoes and slices of cold watermelon.
COVID be damned, Labor Day weekend offers one last chance to claim some normalcy from the Lost Summer of 2020. So let’s declare Labor Day a politics-free zone and debate more immediate concerns: gas versus charcoal and what to throw on your grill.
Casey McKissick, owner of Foothills Butcher Bar in Black Mountain and West Asheville, is Team Charcoal — with a little flourish. “We grill a couple times a week, and we are charcoal and wood grillers,” he says. “I start with charcoal and then throw on some oak or hickory wood to add that nice flavor.”
For Labor Day, he has two crowd-pleasing recommendations spanning low- and high-brow. Foothills beef-and-pork blend hot dogs are made in house weekly and sold by the four-pack. “In the restaurant, we cook them on the flattop, but they are best on a charcoal grill,” McKissick explains. “They take about 20 minutes on a very low heat, which activates the fat and the flavors and produces that nice, tight skin.”
For a fun wiener party trick, McKissick recommends putting the dog on a kebab skewer then, using a paring knife, cutting into it in a spiral to resemble a corkscrew. Pull it off the skewer and voila: “It increases the length by about 4 inches and the surface area for that nice char, and it looks good.”
He also points to a lesser-known cut of beef that can cross rare and well-done party lines is the tri-tip, sourced from AH&W Farm in Wilkes County. Boneless, the boomerang-shaped cut can be 3 inches thick in the center and thins out on either end. “You end up a little less cooked in the center and more on the ends so when you carve it up, there’s something to please everyone.”
When it comes to beef, pork or chicken on the grill, McKissick says, “A meat thermometer is your best friend. I use one every time I grill.”
Kat Hundertmark, manager of Mother Ocean Market, the fresh seafood store that opened on Merrimon Avenue on March 3, is a cast-iron skillet guy, but he says that for grilling seafood, gas is probably the way to go. “That charcoal flavor is great for meat but not always what you’re looking for with fish,” he points out. “Plus, gas offers better temperature control.”
Acknowledging that even experienced burger flippers can be wary grilling of more delicate seafood, he has some advice. First, stick with what he calls “easy, thick fishes” like grouper, salmon, swordfish and tuna. “They’re kind of hard to mess up,” he says. “The mistake people make is wanting to treat them like steak and throwing them around. You can’t manhandle fish.”
He suggests a cut with skin on one side; spread with oil, season with salt and pepper, put flesh side down on a hot grill and leave it there one to three minutes depending on the thickness of the fish. Flip it once, close the grill and let it take the heat through the skin until it is cooked. More flavor, such as a mango-habanero sauce, can be brushed on the flesh side before shutting the grill top. Whole fish can be stuffed with lemons and herbs, then wrapped in foil to grill.
Even oysters can benefit from some heat. Hundertmark, a professional and competitive shucker, says amateurs can avoid punching a hole through their hand by putting unshucked oysters directly on the grill. “They steam in their own seawater and open up enough so you can stick a butter knife in to pop the top.”
Rebecca Rice raises sheep on Swannanoa’s Everbear Farm with partner Bradley Jones and sells at the River Arts District Farmers Market on Wednesdays. She says lamb chops — or mutton chops (a sheep is a lamb until it’s 24 months old, she explains, then it’s mutton) — lend themselves well to the grill. “Some people prefer lamb, but they taste the same to me,” she says, adding that mutton cuts are meatier and cost slightly less than lamb.
Rice offers three types of chops — leg, loin and rib — and suggests loin chops for the grill. Racks of ribs are suited to smokers. Ground lamb or mutton can be made into burgers, though she offers a warning. “I would tell someone who doesn’t eat lamb very often that it has a strong and distinct flavor. If you pull one off the grill and expect it to taste like a hamburger, you’re going to be surprised.”