Listen to Harvey Gebhard talk about grilling and you can almost smell the smoke. Gebhard is the CEO of the Lone Star Barbecue Society, a group that organizes charity cook-offs.
“Get the smoke going, and stand over it and let the smoke get in your eyes,” he advised me in a recent interview. “[Your eyes] get to watering, and your nose gets to running, and all your friends come around. ‘Hey man, what are you cooking!? Hey man, when’s it gonna be ready!?”
“It’s a Texas thing, man!” He concluded, almost lost in revery.
As you can tell, the appeal of grilling isn’t all about the food for Gebhard. It’s about the smoke. For him, recent research from The University of California, Davis is about as unwelcome as rain on the Fourth of July. The study highlights the danger of smoke from outdoor grilling to public health.
But that wasn’t the original intent of the study.
“We were interested in the general question of what are the sources of particles in the atmosphere that are toxic,” Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis explained.
Wexler and his colleague collected particles from the air around Fresno, California, a city with severe air pollution. They exposed those particles to mice.
“We were surprised. It was the summer residential cooking that was highly toxic,” said Wexler. He suggests that backyard grilling was to blame for the some of the most toxic particles. But only a certain type of grilling. “The difference is the [grilling]. It’s the people using the charcoal briquettes that create a lot of smoke that people are inhaling and then appears to be toxic.”
It’s not just dangerous for people standing right over the fire. The study suggests that the cumulative effect of all those grills have a negative health impact throughout an entire community. The test didn’t include Texas style meat-smoking, but Wexler imagines it has the same impact.
Fortunately, he says, when it comes to cooking meats and vegies, there’s an easy fix.
“Well, there are some [poeple] who you can simply encourage to switch to propane,” he said “That would be a big help and that wouldn’t necessarily be a big burden on them.”
I relayed the message to Harvey Gebhard of the Barbecue Society. It didn’t go over too well.
“I don’t know what I’d really say to him,” Gebhard responded. “I mean, hey, man. You’re in Texas. I don’t know where you came from, but you might want to go back. Cause this is what we do in Texas. We barbecue.”
One of the rules of Barbecue Society cook-offs is that participants have to cook with wood or charcoal. Gebhard points out that it’s not like grilling is an inherently healthy pursuit in the first place. The charred meat is carcinogenic. And the meals aren’t always good for the waistline. The day I interviewed Gebhard, he regaled me with tales of a pork rind casserole with bacon and cheese he’d tried at a recent cook off.
“Stoped up the arteries, but it was good!” he said with a smile.
It’s probably no surprise that a grilling purist like Gebhard would reject the study. So I headed down to a local park to get more opinions. It was Monday evening, but, this being Austin, it didn’t take long before I ran into Kindred McClure and his fiancee Elizabeth Reyes. They were preparing some carne asada over coals.
McClure and Reyes were quick to point out that other things they do may contribute more air pollution.
“I mean, I drive my car,” Reyes said, laughing.
Gas powered lawnmowers, air conditioning, and fireworks displays also contribute to air pollution. When it comes to grilling, Reyes and McClure say they don’t want to give up their charcoal, but they’re open to diversifying.
“When we go camping, we use a little propane grill. It’s good,” offered McClure.
And it turns out even Gebhard uses a propane grill at home.
“I don’t know if that pollutes anything or not. I guess it’s a cleaner burning fuel than wood,” he conceded.
Study co-author Anthony Wexler says he’s not advocating “some draconian thing.” He just wants to give air quality regulators the tools to protect people’s health. That simply mean discouraging charcoal grilling when there’s no wind to blow away the toxins. After all, Wexler himself, enjoys a bit of smoke from time to time.
“When I have been in Texas, I have eaten smoked meat and brisket because I love that stuff,” he said.
And he plans to eat more of it next time he’s in Texas.