Family Cookouts

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Photo by Mark Martin
A homemade barbecue grill constructed out of an old furnace heat exchanger, angle iron, a sucker rod, and rebar.

Family cookouts are some of my favorite summertime memories from growing up on a farm. My family worked hard all week to earn time off on Saturday night. Where did we spend the evening? Not in a movie theater or at a restaurant, but gathered around a homemade barbecue grill with Grandma and Grandpa.

Our jerry-rigged grill was as simple as Dad could build it. He’d be called an “upcycler” today, but back then he was just a frugal farmer who had an eye for useful materials no one else wanted. Besides being a great scrounger, he knew how to weld.

He fashioned our grill box out of an old furnace heat exchanger that he cut in two, and then he connected the sides with angle iron and a sucker rod. He found some rebar in our junk pile and welded it across the top for the grate. The grill wasn’t pretty – and still isn’t – but it worked, and it was free.

Everything seemed to taste better when cooked outside. We placed our homemade grill next to our 5-acre pond, near a hedge of gnarly Osage orange trees – the source of hot-burning firewood for our barbecue. We didn’t cook fancy meals, but instead relied on food we had at hand.

The main course was either hamburgers made from Black Angus beef raised on our farm, or one of Grandma’s succulent White Cornish Cross broilers. To round out the meal, we’d add fresh-from-the-garden sweet corn, along with potato salad or baked beans. Dessert was thick slices of watermelon. We didn’t worry about drips as we bit into the juicy slices because we were wearing our dirty cookout clothes, suited to swimming in the pond after supper.

As the moon rose over the prairie, my brothers and I crouched low in the water and dodged the handfuls of mud we threw at each other. When our parents shouted “Bedtime!” we trudged back to the house, our way lit by fireflies and the Milky Way. The tub wore a ring of pond scum after our Saturday-night baths, but we ended the day clean, satisfied, and exhausted.

This ugly grill has survived hundreds of firings, several floods and hailstorms, and a couple of shotgun blasts to the sides. No store-bought grill could’ve withstood the elements so well for so many decades.

Do you have any stories of how home-made items have improved your life? Drop me a note (rmartin@cappersfarmer.com), with photos (jpeg, 300 dpi) if you have them, and your story may end up in a future issue of the magazine.