Forget Arsenic, Try Death by Barbeque


Weekends are something special. Throughout the four seasons they come as a block of days with their own immutable character – starting slowly with the teething excitement of Friday afternoon; the mid-leisurely Saturday; and Sunday being of old the most languorous of the three, yet the quickest to pass. Of course, down the decades we have gone through changes of habit over these days but the essential properties and notions of our weekends remain.

Back at work on Monday colleagues hold post-mortems into their weekends - though this weekend a post-mortem was almost held into me.

I think it was on Radio Ulster on Saturday morning that the weather forecast announced that we could expect one or two hours of sunny periods later that afternoon. That’s when our street went mad – and I presume thousands of other lemmings living within that promised belt of sunshine across the North.

There were traffic jams everywhere. Couples stormed the garden centres for bigger and better barbecues and other supplies. There was panic in the Supermarkets as counters ran out of steaks, hamburgers, chicken legs, chops and sausages. You could have earned yourself a fortune on E-bay auctioneering the last six spare ribs and a packet of baps, such was the demand.

Barbecuing brings out the caveman in men which is why so many insist on cooking whilst bare-chested at the fire - exposing huge beer bellies that would have scared the living daylights out of the Hairy Mammoth and driven it to extinction.

Last Saturday afternoon, however, as I made my way home through the gathering, carcinogenic, rancid smog, it was an indoor salad I was thinking of. Maybe I would oven roast some sliced aubergines, courgettes, mixed peppers and a few bulbs of garlic to go with it, and make lemon cous cous.

However, my best laid plans were set aside as who should greet me at home but a Delia Smith look-alike with those words all men – unborn, single, betrothed, married or widowed – fear from a woman: “I have decided…”

“I have decided, honey, as tomorrow is Father’s Day, to treat you to a wonderful barbecue. I’ve followed Delia and made a great sauce. Taste that.”

I had to agree it was nice but I suggested to my wife Leslie that she add some Demerara sugar to make it less tart: Delia advocates some Worcester sauce, which, for me, should strictly be used only in a steak and kidney pie.

I was handed a glass of wine and told to relax and take the air. Across the hedge came plumes of smoke from other members of our sad nation who had been awaiting the signal for almost twelve months for this particular Radio Ulster weather forecast.

The sun did come out – once.

Saw what was going on and decided to stay in.

Below it, silver wedding anniversaries were being cancelled and couples were divorcing in gardens up and gardens down the streets. A huge golfing umbrella and several trees were alight. There were screams of “Get the fire brigade!” Somebody else was shouting in a panic had anybody seen the hamster. There were cries for more Germolene. A dog ran off with some child’s hotdog. Mrs O’Neill’s washing was ruined. From somewhere Patsy Cline was coming in at 150 decibels: from somewhere else, Franz Ferdinand at 200. It was sheer bedlam.

Meanwhile, all was serenity as my Leslie brushed the sauce over her chicken thighs as I looked on.

“You’re going to enjoy these,” she promised me. She refreshed my empty glass and once again told me to relax. The sky was now so overcast it became quite dark and a bit chilly. I said I would prefer to eat indoors and Leslie insisted that she set the table.

Eventually, the meal was ready and the chicken was served with cubed new potatoes baked in olive oil, fresh rosemary and garlic. I was famished and got tucked in. The chicken skin glistened red and gold from the marinade and was nice and crispy at the edges.

“He didn’t measure up.” Those were Nancie Doss’s words in 1954.

Leslie smiled as I chomped on my second thigh. On the plate it had wobbled a little, a bit like jelly.

For Christmas my wife had bought me the DVD of ‘I, Claudius’, based on the BBC television series of the 1970s and set in ancient Rome. You know, the one where Livia, grandmother of Claudius, heartlessly eliminates every rival for power, including her husband Augustus.

“He didn’t measure up…I was searching for the perfect mate, the real romance of life,” Nancy Doss told the court about her last husband out of the five that she had been charged with poisoning during meals, often lacing their desserts with arsenic. She was only caught because she went overboard with her final spouse giving him twenty times the ‘normal’ dose.

Had Leslie been doing most of the talking while I ate? Had she been merely moving her chicken around the plate? Had I not measured up!? We hadn’t even come to dessert.

Arsenic poisoning was a particularly popular method of murder for women in the Victorian era. It was sold over the counter as a rat poison but some women bought it and claimed that it improved their complexion. However, with advances in the science of toxicology it became very difficult to murder someone by poison and for it to go undetected.

Until, that is, the barbecue! The opportunity for the perfect murder: death by salmonella, blamed on an innocent chicken too dead to defend itself. Or, on my plate, not dead enough.

“Don’t eat it!” she shouted. “It isn’t cooked!”

Of course, by then I knew by the bloody juices running out of the sinews that not all was right. Still, I had only eaten a little. I insisted on barbequing the thighs a bit longer but she was so annoyed at not having produced the perfect meal that she lost her appetite so neither of us ate any more.

I felt okay that evening but the next day I was projecting and propelling chicken chromosomes from all available orifices at velocities up to the speed of light. I was unwell, bedridden and dehydrating. Worse still, I could smell more meat being cremated by the hardcore in our street.

“Look!” exclaimed Leslie, to the priest by my bedside. “I know what went wrong!” She had gone through the cookery book and discovered that she had forgotten “One important point” at the beginning of the instructions. Chicken pieces, warned Delia, “need pre-baking in a pre-heated oven at gas mark 4, 350 F (180 C), for fifteen minutes, just before glazing and barbecuing.”

I felt so much better, so happy, that I threw off my nappy and bib, leaped out of bed and embraced her. Dan had measured up! He was not, after all, married to Nancy Doss.

< Prev ... Next >

[ back ]

© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison