Garlic and Flame

Todd Coleman

Driving down the Carretera Transistmica in Panama, I caught a whiff of smoke. Around the bend, a young woman swathed in billowing smoke caught my eye as she tended the grill outside a restaurant. Hypnotized, I pulled over and approached the cinder-block building as a dozen people, who I found out were her family members, looked on skeptically. This restaurant was their life, and after I complimented the char and aroma of the grilling chicken and asked for a taste, they warmed up to me. Grandma proudly sat mixing garlic, allspice, sherry vinegar, and orange juice, while her daughter, the grill master, made my plate. Eating juicy chicken straight from the flames, sighing with pleasure at each bite of crisp-skinned flesh dripping with garlicky marinade, we shared a moment of intensity and informality particular to the cookout, where the cook is part of the party and everyone is warmed by fire, smoke, and good company.