By John Hopkins
Photos courtesy Bobbie-Joe Blackburn
As far as Canadian symbols go, the barbecue could rank right up there with the Maple Leaf and the beaver. Few images define the summer experience in this country quite like meat cooking on the grill in the backyard or on the deck. Magazine articles, books and television shows are dedicated to barbecue recipes, and the surest sign of spring is the appearance of grilling devices and accessories in hardware stores.
However, the barbecue is much more than simply a means of cooking food. It is also a social experience. While there is nothing wrong with turning on the grill to prepare a small family meal, the real pleasure comes from hosting those gatherings of family and friends, where everyone is outside, enjoying the sun and warmth, and taking in the aromas of food cooking on an open fire. It may not be strictly a Canadian experience, but it is a summer connection we share as surely as mosquitoes and sunburns.
With that in mind, there are probably few of us who have not envisioned the perfect barbecue — the ultimate in outdoor entertaining that would allow us to host the summer event of our dreams. But how many of us have had the vision and determination to actually create the perfect grill? Some 25 years ago Allan Blackburn did, and the result is an engineering achievement that continues to provide a social hub for family and friends in the Tweed and surrounding area. The portable grill he dreamt up can handle three of the largest rib roast, 30 or more half chickens and a full pig, has the capability of running three rotisseries at once and has a capacity or five large bags of charcoal. It has handled the cooking for events of up to 150 people and annually serves the Blackburn family reunion, which numbers 30-40 people.
“Dad came from a big family and we always had these large family reunions,” explains his son Scott, who along with his wife Bobbie-Joe became the custodian of the barbecue after his father’s death in 2010. “The Blackburns are big eaters, and we love to cook, and to see people eating and enjoying themselves. Dad’s philosophy I guess was to go big or go home. He had a vision.”
The barbecue measures 36” long by 48” wide and 50” high. It is mounted on wheels, but with its solid axle it is not practical for towing over long distances behind a vehicle. Once at a venue it can, however, be hitched up behind a four-wheeler and towed to a specific location. Among its features are butterfly doors on each side, like on a Model T Ford, which provides easy access to the cooking area, and the ability to have any combination of the three skewers rotating. There is a potato basket and crates for steaks or half chickens.
While Allan Blackburn had the vision, welder Jimmy Sherman was key to bringing that vision to reality. Allan’s wife Barbara and brother Ivan were also key figure in critiquing meals after meals until they got it right.
“There was a lot of trial and error,” Scott points out. “For example, when they first ran the skewers they were turning so fast the guys thought the meat would just fly off. They had to change the gearing. The stainless steel skewers had to be a certain size. Dad probably spent five or six years tinkering with it.”
While the butterfly doors provide easy access when open, when they are closed they seal in the smoke and, combined with marinade dripping on the coals, provide a unique flavour to chicken. Scott and Bobbie-Joe have also spent time developing marinades and rubs to enhance taste.
“We watch a lot of barbecue shows on TV and get some ideas from those,” Scott says. “We’ll try recipes out on the family and if it passes that test we’ll use it with friends.”
While the unit has proven practical for large gatherings, it is also durable, and has only required minor maintenance over the years. That is partly due to the fact that it is used infrequently and only family or close friends are allowed to cook on it.
Scott’s son Taylor, “can take anything I own, but as for the barbecue…,” Scott explains. “He understands it has a lot of sentimental value to our family, and we would hate to see anything happen to it.”
Indeed, what started out as a practical means of feeding those large family gatherings has turned into something more for the Blackburns.
“I’m a lot like my Dad,” Scott says. “When we’re out cooking I’ll hang back and let everyone eat and I like to see that they’re enjoying themselves. When we’re cooking with it it’s like Dad is cooking with us, and I think he’d be so happy to see that we’re still using the unit and it’s still bringing everyone together and bringing them pleasure.”