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Volume 46 | Issue 3 | April 2004

News

 
photo: Barbeque Master, Jay Levine.
X-Press Editor Jay Levine was more successful posing for this feature shot than he was grilling dinner. As summer comes and barbecuing becomes a hot idea, find out how to avoid becoming the entreé at your own barbecue.
NASA Photo / Tom Tschida

How to save your eyebrows:

Or at least avoid barbecued leg

By Jay Levine
X-Press Editor

Most people are careful when they heat up the grill for a hearty barbecue because they want to be certain the parts they cook are not their own.

But even a grill master like me, who has been barbecuing since I was old enough to grip a long fork, can give a good impression of a roasting marshmallow under the wrong circumstances. That's exactly what happened to me one Friday evening in March when I had my chops all set for that rib eye defrosting in the fridge.

To sum up what happened to me in one word is easy: fireball. Explaining how it happened in my gas grill and how I could prevent it from happening again might be a bit more difficult.

I have a grill with three burners. I lit one and let it heat up while I changed from my work clothes into my shorts. I returned to the grill and put the mouth-watering steaks on and added some seasonings. I like the grill to be sizzling hot to sear the flavor of the meat, a process I've executed literally thousands of times.

Some things were different this time, however, and I should have seen the warning signs that might have prevented the disaster. First, the door where the propane tank sits had opened up. At the time, I thought it might have been one of my kids who had opened it, even though we have a standing rule at our house that kids aren't permitted near the barbecue when Dad cooks - a precaution against burned fingers or hot food falling on them.

photo: Barbeque Master, Jay Levine's leg.
Levine's barbecued leg.
NASA Photo / Tom Tschida

Fatigue clouded my judgement. I did give the grill a brief check to see if there was any other evidence of a problem, but quickly discounted the anomaly of the open door. That was when the trouble began. What happened next I really can't say for sure. I'm still remembering the events that led to a three-foot-wide fireball shooting out from the barbecue, creating a sort of filet-of-Jay for the evening's unintended entreé.

One of two things happened, either of which could have caused the fireball and both of which were eminently preventable.

Possibility number one is that I checked the knobs to make sure no one had messed with them and inadvertently turned an unlit burner on, matching it to the "on" position of the one next to it rather than the "off" position I had intended. The other possibility is that a leak may have developed either in the connection between the propane tank and the grill's plumbing, or from the knob to the burner that might have become worn from excessive use - at our house, we barbecue four or five nights a week. Either way, my new rule is to check the connections annually.

Regardless of how the rogue gas had escaped, propane is heavier than air so it gathered in the under-section of the grill undetected by my nose. With the door closed, the pressure was allowed to build as the propane found the flame of the lit burner and ignited.

It all happened very quickly, and I wasn't quite sure what had happened to me. The inferno burned the hair off my chest and the inside of my smoldering shirt, singed the hair on my arm and burned parts of my elbow and stomach as well as a large portion of my right leg.

My wife Carla, a woman of great wisdom, insisted we make the 10-minute trip to the urgent care and I reluctantly agreed. I didn't think I was burned that badly, because all that was immediately visible was the red surface of my skin - in fact, much of the bubbling didn't appear until the next morning. I learned at urgent care that the burning of skin doesn't stop until cold water is applied to the affected areas.

I refused pain medication because of the effect it inevitably has on my stomach, so I gritted my teeth for about two hours of treatment. I held the leg under a faucet for about 15 minutes and the rest of the time endured as urgent care personnel carefully applied cream, added sterile pads and wrapped the area of the burn on my leg - which extended from my inner thigh to my ankle - and the burns on my elbow and stomach.

The urgent care doctor told me I was fortunate I had been wearing shorts rather than long pants because if I'd been wearing pants, he said they would have seared onto my skin. The cream burned as it was applied and the leg throbbed as it was being wrapped like an Egyptian mummy. Oh yes - then I got a tetanus shot, and was prescribed an antibiotic to fight infection.

Two more visits to urgent care and two additional visits to my doctor were required to treat the combination of first, second and third degree burns on my leg.

I returned to a busy week at work, which required the usual amount of time on my feet; it was painful to do the most routine of tasks. I reluctantly had to accept help in getting to some of the places I needed to go and felt bad that I was taking people away from their own duties to help me.

I had intended to tell as few people as possible about my situation. Some of that was pride, but more of it was sheer embarrassment. But when I told people about my accident, more often than not they told stories of scary things they do while barbecuing that have the potential to make what I went through look like a day at Disneyland. While writing this - about two weeks after the event - my leg still throbs and burns, and that's why I'm telling this tale. Maybe someone who reads this might learn from it, and will interrupt the chain of events leading to a potential injury of their own.

As barbecuing season heats up (pun intended), there are a few things to do or be aware of to avoid injury and to enjoy grilling without fear. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Don't throw matches into a lit gas burner. Purchase one of the long lighters that can reach the burner before adding gas to the equation. Many an eyebrow can be saved for the small price of a buck or two.

  • Don't grill if you are too fatigued - or have enjoyed a few alcoholic beverages. Impaired judgment was at least a contributing factor to my accident. Call out for pizza that night, and save the steaks for a barbecue the next day.

  • Lighter fluid should not be liberally used in charcoal grills. And stand back when lighting it.

  • Flame-retardant gloves are a must. They'll not only save you from yourself when you're tempted to reach into the flames for hot food that has fallen through the grill - the glove won't fit - but they also provide overall protection for your hands while cooking.

  • If you do get burned, remember to immerse the burn in cold water first to stop the burning process. It's also not a bad idea to have at least a minimal first-aid kit in the kitchen. If you're prepared adequately for disaster you'll never be caught unable to cope with one.

  • If injured, seek immediate attention. That's why they call it "urgent care."
Bon appétit.