We are about to officially roll into peak cookout season, with two big backyard holidays on the horizon. Memorial Day is nearly here, and the Fourth of July isn’t far behind. These are always among the most popular occasions for cookouts on the calendar, but why is all the focus on just two days? When you have a cookout, you can make almost any other day feel like a holiday — and without all the stress or packed grocery stores.
Cookouts are inherently festive no matter when you have them, a chance to eat casually without the formality of a sit-down, or even indoor, party. Everyone pitches in, and if done right, the burden never falls on one person.
One way to ensure the we’re-all-in-this-together spirit is to host a cookout at a public park. When no one is the official host (you may want to designate one person as the organizer, however), it encourages guests to pitch in on the food — potluck! — and cleanup. Especially when you live in an urban area, parks give anyone the opportunity to throw a party.
A few weeks ago, the Voraciously team got together for our own cookout at Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington. Here are lessons culled from our experience.
Delegate. Even if you’re the organizer, don’t expect to be able to do everything on your own. Try to come up with a system for people to sign up to bring food and other necessary items, whether it’s through Evite, a Google doc or a physical sign-up sheet at your office. Figure out who has a car to help transport large items. You might also want to assign someone when the event is over to be in charge of doing a final rundown of the site to make sure nothing is left behind and you’re leaving it in as good (or better!) shape as you found it. Don’t be shy about asking for assistance when you need it.
Read up on park rules and the details of your site. Check to see if you need a permit or a reservation. Pay attention to the number of people allowed and what equipment (generators, sound systems, etc.) may not be allowed. Can you bring alcohol? What about pets? See if there’s a source of running water and, of course, a grill. When we found out the day before our cookout that our site didn’t actually have the grill the park website claimed it did, a last-minute purchase of a tabletop model saved the day.
Plan your food. This is why you want to have a pretty good idea of how many people are coming and what they’re bringing. For mains (hamburgers, hot dogs, etc.), count on about one per person, though you should have a few extra. For sides and salads of the non-lettuce variety, try to have about 1/2 to 1 cup each per person. Account for at least one dessert serving per person, but too much dessert is rarely a problem. Bring zip-top bags and/or plastic containers for packaging leftovers.
Have all the tools you need for grilling. Barbecue and grilling expert Steven Raichlen, author of “Project Fire” and host of the new public television series of the same name, suggests a few must-haves: A wire brush or wood scraper for cleaning grates, spring-loaded tongs with long handles, a pair of suede grilling gloves and an instant-read thermometer for checking meat. As to that wire brush, despite stories of people ingesting the bristles, “you’re as likely to win the lottery, with happier results of course,” Raichlen says. But you can also choose to use a balled-up piece of aluminum foil held in your tongs (and you’ll likely want foil for other uses anyway). A spatula you can use to flip burgers can be useful, too.
Don’t forget other necessities. You’ll want to bring trash bags (you can have separate ones for regular trash and recycling), paper towels (in addition to the napkins and tableware people will be eating with), hand sanitizer, water, sunscreen and bug spray. Try to have all these items in a central location so people can have easy access to them.
Practice smart food safety. Raichlen says it’s important to have a constant source of ice and to be sure to keep meat cold until it hits the grill. Avoid cross-contamination: Have separate cutting boards for raw and cooked meat. Be sure to keep other cooked food or items to be eaten raw (salads, fruit, etc.) clear of raw meat, as well. Keep foods cool in an insulated cooler with ice, frozen gel packs or even frozen food. To avoid having to root around and open the coolers too often, fill and label them according to category. Some serving trays have built-in compartments for ice that are handy once the food is out for serving. Check out Foodsafety.gov for more specific recommendations on cookout safety.
Bring games. What’s a cookout without some friendly competition? Think cornhole, croquet, Wiffle ball, ladder toss, bocce or Voraciously’s game of choice, KanJam (a little like disc golf).
Be flexible. It’s a cookout: It’s outdoors, and there are a lot of people. Something will inevitably go wrong. That’s okay! Be prepared for contingencies, and have a friend or two you can rely on to help you in a pinch. As long as you have a sufficient supply of food and drinks — a sense of humor helps, too — everything will be all right.
So what did we eat at our cookout? Here’s a rundown of the recipes (which we’ll be adding to all week):