June 25, 1995
THE MIAMI HERALD
CULINARY TOPIC IS: How to Light a Charcoal Fire
Everybody loves a backyard barbecue. For some reason, food
just seems to taste better when it has been cooked outdoors,
where flies can lay eggs on it.
nothing worse -- and I include the Great Depression in that
statement -- than trying to set fire to a pile of balky charcoal.
(For those of you who actually went through the Great Depression
and are offended by the previous sentence, let me state, in
all sincerity, that "Balky Charcoal" would be a
good name for a rock band.)
The average backyard chef, wishing to cook hamburgers, tries
to ignite the charcoal via the Squirt, Light and Wait method,
wherein you squirt lighter fluid on a pile of briquettes,
light the pile, then wait until they have turned a uniform
gray color. When I say "they have turned a uniform gray
color, " I am referring to the hamburgers. The briquettes
will remain as cold and lifeless as Leonard Nimoy. The backyard
chef will keep this up -- squirting, lighting, waiting; squirting,
lighting, waiting -- until the bacterial level in the side
dishes has reached the point where the potato salad rises
up from its bowl, Blob-like, and attempts to mate with the
corn. This is the signal that it's time to order Chinese food.
The problem is that modern charcoal, manufactured under strict
consumer-safety guidelines, is one of the least-flammable
substances on Earth. On more than one occasion, quick-thinking
individuals have extinguished a raging house fire by throwing
charcoal on it. Your backyard chef would be just as successful
trying to ignite a pile of rocks.
Is there a solution? Yes. There happens to be a technique
that is guaranteed to get your charcoal burning very, very
quickly, although you should not attempt this technique unless
you meet all of the following criteria:
1. You are a complete idiot.
I found out about this technique from alert reader George
Rasko, who sent me a letter describing something he came across
on the World Wide Web, an exciting new computer network that
you should definitely learn more about, because as you read
these words your 11-year-old is downloading pornography from
hooking into the World Wide Web, you can look at a wide variety
of electronic "pages, " consisting of documents,
pictures and video created by people all over the world. One
of these is a guy named (really) George Goble, a computer
person in the Purdue University engineering department. Each
year, Goble and a bunch of other engineers hold a picnic in
West Lafayette, Ind., at which they cook hamburgers on a big
grill. Being engineers, they began looking for practical ways
to speed up the charcoal- lighting process.
"We started by blowing the charcoal with a hair dryer,
" Goble told me in a telephone interview. "Then
we figured out that it would light faster if we used a vacuum
If you know anything about (1) engineers, and (2) guys in
general, you know what happened: The purpose of the charcoal-
lighting shifted from cooking hamburgers to seeing how fast
they could light the charcoal.
From the vacuum cleaner, they escalated to using a propane
torch, then an acetylene torch. Then Goble started using compressed
pure oxygen, which caused the charcoal to burn much faster,
because as you recall from chemistry class, fire is essentially
the rapid combination of oxygen with the cosine to form the
Tigris and Euphrates rivers (or something along those lines).
By this point Goble was getting pretty good times. But in
the world of competitive charcoal-lighting, "pretty good"
does not cut the mustard. Thus Goble hit upon the idea of
using -- get ready -- liquid oxygen. This is the form of oxygen
used in rocket engines; it's 295 degrees below zero and 600
times as dense as regular oxygen. In terms of releasing energy,
pouring liquid oxygen on charcoal is the equivalent of throwing
a live squirrel into a room containing 50 million Labrador
retrievers. On Goble's World Wide Web page (the address is
http:// ghg.ecn.purdue.edu/) you can see actual photographs
and a video of Goble using a bucket attached to a 10-foot
long wooden handle to dump three gallons of liquid oxygen
(Not Sold In Stores) onto a grill containing 60 pounds of
charcoal and a lit cigarette for ignition. What follows is
the most impressive charcoal-lighting I have ever seen, featuring
a large fireball that, according to Goble, reached 10,000
degrees Fahrenheit. The charcoal was ready for cooking in
-- this has to be a world record -- three seconds.
There's also a photo of what happened when Goble used the
same technique on a flimsy little $2.88 discount-store grill.
All that's left is a circle of charcoal with a few shreds
of metal in it.
"Basically, the grill vaporized, " said Goble. "We
were thinking of returning it to the store for a refund."
Looking at Goble's video and photos, I became, as an American,
all choked up with gratitude at the fact that I do not live
anywhere near the engineers' picnic site. But also I was proud
of my country, for producing guys who can be ready to barbecue
in less time than it takes for guys in less-advanced nations,
such as France, to spit.
Will the three-second barrier ever be broken? Will engineers
come up with a new, more-powerful charcoal-lighting technology?
It's something for all of us to ponder this summer as we sit
outside, chewing our hamburgers, every now and then glancing
in the direction of West Lafayette, Ind., looking for a mushroom
© 1995 Dave Barry. The information you
receive on-line from
this site is protected by the copyright laws of the United
The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting,
or repurposing of any copyright-protected material.
happy to have you link to this page on your web site, or send
the link to your friends in email. But please don't copy the
columns and put them on your site, or send them out in email.
back to Dave's Columns