How to barbecue with a little less guilt

Summer on the beach. Something is always burning.

The smoke rises every weekend from beach fires, camp fires, backyard fire-pit gatherings. The first week of July we add fireworks. And all season long there’s barbecuing.

I love to cook on the barbecue. But each year, as I face another couple of months of adding extra carbon to the atmosphere, I wonder about our barbecuing habits. So, never wanting to sink money into one of those monster gas grills that have been all the rage for the past few years, I still use charcoal briquettes.

There was a time when the environmental gurus said that using natural gas or propane was less environmentally destructive than charcoal. I felt guilty then. But now, with the price of various gasses over the moon, and with the destruction wrought by drilling for gas and oil, and with talk of peak this and peak that, I’m glad to still have my trusty old charcoal burner.

Rationalization time:

The few times I grill each year cannot possibly make a difference to the environment or climate change.

Of course, the problem with grilling is the same as any other non-point source pollution – the cumulative effect of all of us doing it.

Justification time:

We used to burn a lot of things in this rural, island community. Times have changed and my neighbors and I have given up a lot of burning behaviors.

  • burning paper trash
  • burning yard waste
  • heating with wood
  • burning scrap wood from Tom’s projects
  • lighting off fireworks
  • beach fires
  • camp fires
  • backyard fire pit

Damn the justification – let’s be plain … the only thing I burn outside now is meat and I’m not ready to give it up entirely.

That said, I did find out how to barbecue and reduce the impact of my habit just a bit, and maybe reduce the health hazard of grilled meat just a bit too. I found it by running out of lighter fluid.

Charcoal lighter fluid smells awful, gives the food a slight petroleum taste and supports the evil oil industry. I’ve always hated the stuff. But as I’m always in a hurry, or deciding to grill at the last minute, fluid often appeared to be a necessity. Until the night I got everything ready to grill and found I didn’t have any.

My loathing of grocery shopping is legendary. I called Tom to see if he could stop and get some fluid on the way home. He didn’t answer, didn’t call back. I was running out of time, so I headed to …

Google, and asked for alternative methods of lighting charcoal. At the top of the page, in the ad section, I learned that I could buy a charcoal lighting chimney. Not gonna happen. Scrolling further down, page after page, into the tin-foil-hat realm, I found mention of making your own charcoal lighting chimney.

The directions said to use a big coffee can. As the last time I bought coffee in a can was in another millennium, I did not have a coffee can on hand. I did have a tomato can. Of course that was far smaller and probably wouldn’t work. But I went for it anyway and reader, it did work. In five minutes I made a small charcoal lighting chimney, set it up and lit it. Ten minutes later I had coals ready to go, without using lighter fluid, and was happily grilling my chicken sans gas fumes.

This was such a revelation that I have to shout about it:


Here’s how to make a charcoal lighting chimney and how to use it.

Image of a homemade charcoal lighting chimney

1. Fish a can out of the recycling bin. Anything from a large tomato can to a coffee can will do.

2. Punch holes around the bottom with a standard can punch.

3. Remove the bottom with a can opener. NOT AN ELECTRIC CAN OPENER. Repurpose that stupid appliance as a doorstop and work your wrist muscles with a real tool. ZYLISS Lock N’ Lift Can Opener.

4. Roll a sheet of newspaper into a loose tube. Next, form the tube into a donut and fit it into the can. Don’t compress it too much, air needs to flow through the tube.

5. Spray or drizzle a little cooking oil on the paper from the top. Up end it and do some on the bottom too.

6. Load natural charcoal briquettes that are not impregnated with petroleum into the can – a large tomato can will take about ten, which is enough to start things off.

7. Light the paper in several places from the bottom.

8. Set the can on the briquette grate of the barbecue grill and leave it for ten minutes. The charcoal at the bottom will be nice and hot.

9. Gently lift the can (with tongs!) to let the glowing coals fall out the bottom.

10. Heap more coals around and over the lit coals.

11. Proceed as usual with the rest of your grilling fun and pat yourself on the back for grilling without petroleum.

There are a ton of sites that sell charcoal lighting chimneys. Some even offer videos on how to make a charcoal lighting chimney “for less than $20.” Good lord. Spending any money at all on this is for schmucks. All it takes a couple of flicks of the wrist and you’ll be grilling sans petroleum.

Also, for you schmucks who want to skip the lighter fluid, but aren’t quite ready to dive into do it yourself, here’s a link to purchase a ready made charcoal lighting chimney from Amazon. I can see that the handle might be a really nice feature. If you do buy one from Amazon, I get a commission. No schmucks here!

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