We’re in the thick of barbecue season, which means if you’ve got a patch of earth, deck or roofing tar big enough to hold a grill, a cooler and a few chairs, it’s your civic duty to throw one. Or several. You think we’re going to leave this simple summer pleasure to suburbanites?
If your mind works like mine, right about now you’re considering how much it’s going to run you. And it’s true, entertaining can be a costly proposition. As the gods of thrift would have it, though, many of the staples of backyard barbecuing—beans, iced tea—are built from peasant-level ingredients that can be had for spare change. So we set out to throw a barbecue for a dozen people and see how little we could spend while serving up a meal that nobody would suspect cost little more per person than their subway ride over. For tallying purposes, we’re assuming you’ve got a number of basic ingredients in your kitchen: oil, white vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar, , flour, , mustard and milk.,
The key to pulling this off is coming up with a main course that’s cheap and good, and it’s here the act of barbecuing—not grilling, but long, slow cooking over a smoky wood fire—becomes your friend. After all, the founding concept behind that method was to get good eating out of cheap, tough cuts of meat, like brisket and pork shoulder. And it still works. Not only that, but it’s easier to do than you may think. All you need is a covered kettle grill, some charcoal, a few handfuls of aromatic hardwood (chips or chunks) and a willingness to spend long hours hovering in the vicinity, absorbing smoke until you smell like you’ve spent the day battling wildfires.
For the long version of how it’s done, click here. The short version is this: after seven hours bathing in wood smoke in the confines of my vented grill, a pair of 5-lb. pork butts that cost a mere 99 cents a pound at the local C-Town emerged smoke-blackened outside, tender within, and flavorful throughout, ready for shredding, dousing with vinegar sauce (or not), heaping on a cheap white bun (or not) and otherwise devoured by an appreciative crowd. Cost, including $2.78 for the buns and $2 for dry-rub ingredients ( and paprika): $14.78.
The other long-haul cooking task was making side dish involves overnight soaking followed by 5 hours of stovetop simmering (though you can largely ignore them during that time, aside from the occasional stir). According to the unbeatable recipe in Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby’s classic Thrill of the Grill, it also involves a half-pound of bacon, an onion, some molasses, a whole bottle of ketchup, some cheap yellow mustard and brown sugar. Total cost: $6.98.. Turning a $1.39 bag of dried navy beans into the ultimate barbecue
Thrill of the Grill also has my favorite baking powder on hand, you’ll need only a stick of butter, some cornmeal, and 4 eggs. Total cost: $3.88., which yields a giant pan that’s moist and slightly sweet. And, did I mention, cheap to make? If you’ve got flour, sugar, salt, milk and
In the green division: Mustard-based spicy coleslaw modified from Mark Bittman’s recipe in How to Cook Everything, which other than kitchen staples like vinegar calls only for green and red cabbage (which isn’t a standby of the penniless for nothing) and a red pepper. (I skip the scallion and parsley). Total cost: $4.35. To really lay on the dog with a second vegetable, I added marinated cucumbers and onion, an inevitable crowd-pleaser whose ingredients ran a whopping $2.61.
To drink: As the host, you, of course, ask your guests to bring beer. But for a classic BBQ accompaniment you ought to also brew up some iced tea, which runs only the cost of a few teabags. I tossed in some mint from my herb garden, but will spot you the cost of a lemon if you’re lacking a fresh mint supply. Total cost: 60 cents.
The result: a kingly feed that and fed a dozen people (more, if you count me eating leftovers the next day), for the pauper’s price of $33.20—which comes to $2.77 a person. For this, I earned the plaudits of happy guests, a fine party—and all that leftover beer.