When I was a kid, grilling often signaled a rare moment when my mom’s whole family got together. We reunited with our far-flung aunts, uncles, and cousins. Everyone contributed, bringing sides and desserts like rice and beans or plantains, and offering whoever stood at the grill advice about when to flip the meat. The air sang with laughter and admonishments from adults to “Speak Spanish, pobrecito!”
I don’t remember every meal we ate—my uncle must have adapted Salvadorean recipes, like bistec encebollado, for his cast-iron grill, or maybe the kids insisted on burgers.
Instead, when the summer sun streams down, and the afternoons linger like old friends catching up, I remember the smell of smoke and sunscreen and the feeling of bonding. Under the blue skies, the grill connected me to my Salvadorean family.
Most cultures have some form of grilling as part of their cooking heritage—Brazilian churrasco, Mexican comal, and American cookouts. The grill is an outdoor hearth, a place for communities to bask in the joy of cooking, eating, and linking our lives.
Recently, over three sunny weekends in Southern California, where I live, and near Fort Worth, Texas, where my mom lives, I joined three families—Mexican, Brazilian, and Polish—in their homes and observed them firing up the grill in their unique cultural ways. The food brought the families together, but the moments I remember most are watching baby fingers trying to get sausage off a skewer and the beaming excitement of a man who shared a picanha with me. Just like it was for me growing up, these gatherings were about more than what the families ate, I understood—they were a chance to connect to their cultural heritage.
Sundays At the Comal
The Ayala Family, Southern California
Los Angeles is famous for sunny days, but lesser known is our June Gloom, cloudy and cold mornings that last well into the summer. The Sunday I drive east past the San Jose Hills to Mario Ayala and Jero Ramirez’s house, the gloom lingers longer than usual, but the sun finally breaks through when I get to the warmer valley where the family lives. Sunday afternoons are an opportunity for the Ayala family to gather after individual busy weeks—grilling and a televised sporting event are usually what’s on the menu. Jony Ayala Ramirez, one of three sons of Mario and Jero, tells me, “We don’t always get to spend a whole day together, but when grilling, we spend more time together than usual.”
Mario readies the comal, a flat grill popular in Mexican cooking, on the family’s back porch. Though the Ayala family moved to Southern California several years ago, they keep memories of their lives in Mexico alive through this way of grilling. By the time I arrive, the pollo asado and carne asada (chicken and beef) have been marinating for hours.
“Everyone shows up when there’s some sort of grilling going on,” Jony tells me. They hang out on the porch for a while, taking breaks inside to escape California’s brutally dry heat, though rarely do they leave for long. Jony has two brothers, and the three take turns speaking in soft Spanish with their father at the grill. Mario listens and nods, offering instructions about how to help him cook in between pauses in their conversation.
Jony shares that his dad learned to grill from his uncles. “When we were younger our uncles would grill almost every other weekend and we’d always go over to their house and hang out with our cousins while the dads grilled.” It reminds me of my own childhood, watching the adults assemble family over food.
The chicken and beef go on the grill first. Mario cooks them low and slow, flipping them multiple times to make sure they cook evenly. When they come off the grill, he keeps them warm in a large cooking pot off to the side—to keep flies away and the food warm—that his adult children occasionally peek into eagerly. It’s hot near the grill, but Mario diligently cooks plenty of meat for six people—they’ll pack lunches with the leftovers all week.
Jony places whole white spring onions on the grill, including the stems, and everyone’s eyes light up. “They’re so good,” Jony’s wife Jovanna gushes. Quietly, Mario reminds Jony when to flip them so they don’t ruin, and I realize I’m watching a family recipe being passed down in real time. What Mario’s uncles taught him, he is passing on to his sons.
When the food is ready, everyone serves themselves buffet-style and then sits at the dining table. Hot Cheetos are kept at the table, for easy access. Nearby is an ofrenda, a table full of photos and decorated with lights, each portrait honoring a family member or friend who passed away.
The meal is lively; everyone speaks in mixed Spanish and English (the second probably for my benefit). Jovanna is pregnant, the first of a new generation. They plan the baby shower over the meal. It’s going to be in July and the question is, “What are we going to grill for the party?”
Try It the Brazilian Way
The Monteiro Family, Fort Worth, Texas
On a warmer Sunday afternoon, I meet Plinio Monteiro and his wife Debbie Marth at their new home just outside Fort Worth, Texas. They’re excited about the hilly view from their yard, and the expanse of space after living in tighter neighborhoods where they raised their daughters. On the back porch, Plinio has just uncovered the grill for the first time since moving in, and he’s practically bouncing while waiting to share “Brazilian grilling,” as he calls it, with me.
He grew up grilling with his family in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “The secret to Brazilian grilling is the cut of meat,” he tells me. “If the cut is good, you don’t need to season it too much.”
Plinio explains picanha and fraldinha, pointing to where each cut comes on a diagram of a cow he pulls up on his phone. He would hang a poster of this diagram in the kitchen, but I sense Debbie might protest. Picanha, I see, is the rump cap and fraldinha is part-flank, part-short loin, and part-bottom sirloin. American butchers rarely carry either cut; only in communities with strong Brazilian influence can you get it by requesting it in advance.
Plinio pulls a picanha from the fridge—it’s a dark red slab with a thick layer of fat on top. “Enough to eat all week,” he tells me.
“In a churrascaria, the picanha is often folded and speared on a skewer, but we’re not going to do that,” Debbie says. They prefer the charring that builds up with direct contact on a hot grill. Plus, the fat drips onto the fire below and makes the flames go wild; she warns that it would be dangerous to do inside a house.
Plinio seasons the meat with coarse salt. While rubbing it in with his hands, he tells me Brazilians don’t rely on marinades or glazes, nor sauces during the meal, to flavor the meat.
While he preps the meat, Debbie makes pão de queijo, small spheres of cheesy bread traditionally eaten as an appetizer or for breakfast. “These are always the girls’ favorite,” she tells me, referring to their two daughters who are grown and out of the house. Plinio mentions that neither has grown into a grillmaster, but they still eat other Brazilian foods and love traveling to Brazil as a family. When the pão de queijo come out of the oven, most are eaten before the meat is done grilling—that’s how good they are.
When the grill is hot enough, Plinio carefully places the picanha on the grill, making sure the fat is positioned on its side initially, so it doesn’t drip all over the meat, and he rotates it often. Most of the cooking happens with the lid closed, so we head back inside.
Debbie and Plinio tell me about Portuguese influence on Brazil’s food and culture. As they chop onions and drizzle olive oil over tomatoes, they reminisce about taking their daughters to Brazil to visit extended family. They make asparagus as well as rice and beans while chatting. “Black beans and rice are very traditional in Brazil—we eat them with every meal,” Plinio tells me while chopping garlic.
“He always has rice around,” Debbie says.
“It goes with everything,” he counters.
Every time Plinio opens the lid, the flames leap and he looks delighted. I see what Debbie meant when she said it’s too dangerous to grill picanha indoors. He gives me a big thumbs-up before taking the meat inside.
I join Debbie and Plinio at the dining table, which has a view out to the yard. It’s a smaller seating than usual; neither of their daughters could be there, but they feel present in the conversation nevertheless. One calls to say hello and the other happens to send a text message while we eat. The smell of smoke from the grill lingers in the air. Plinio slices up the meat as we ask for servings; it stays warm that way. “Try it without anything first,” he tells me, “the Brazilian way.”
A Joyous Nod to Polish Roots
The Pfeffer Family, Southern California
I meet Shannon Pfeffer in her backyard and immediately I get the sense that she loves to grill–she stands in front of the grill with the kind of confidence that only comes from years of experience. “My mom was the one who grilled,” she says of her childhood, and now she’s continuing the legacy with her three young children. Her oldest son, Ellis, helps by passing her tools, stirring sauces, and closely watching her.
When I arrive, she’s already made a salad and skewers with sausage and vegetables, plus skewered watermelon and sliced marinated halloumi for the grill. She comes from a Polish family, so her recipes are inspired by what her family cooked.
“My grandfather always cooked the sausage in beer,” she tells me. But she doesn’t make it the same way. Instead, she favors lighter and brighter flavors like citrus and herbs. Potatoes are also a big part of the traditional Polish diet. When she serves them with grilled meat, Shannon sautées the potatoes and puts chimichurri sauce on top, instead of heavy cheese or making them into dumplings. Even with these changes, grilling is a connection to her roots.
She grills the watermelon and halloumi first, setting them aside to be cut for the salad. As she places the skewered sausage and vegetables onto the grill, she tells me about cooking for her son and 18-month-old twins. The twins will try anything, and their current favorite snack is pomegranate arils.
She has seasoned everything lightly, to begin. “I season in layers,” she explains as she spreads barbecue sauce on the skewers when they’re almost done cooking. Building flavors in layers is a tip she learned from a chef that she’s friends with.
Shannon is conscientious about what she cooks for her family, seeking foods that won’t bother young tummies or cause energy crashes. In fact, she is so passionate about finding healthy modern twists on recipes that she built Syrup Coaching, a consulting service that teaches people how to make smart food choices. As she stands over the grill, she tells me about ways she modifies the traditional meals that she and her husband Aaron ate growing up. Both want to avoid inflammatory ingredients for health reasons but enjoy the flavors that connect them to their heritage. “My meals are on the healthy California side, but with a nod to my Polish roots,” she explains.
When Aaron and the kids join us at the outdoor dining table, it feels like a birthday party has just kicked off, though it’s no one’s birthday. Shannon and Aaron mostly let the kids run around the backyard and eat when they’re ready. Ellis plays with a toy airplane and the twins quickly claim all of the olives and pomegranate arils for themselves. One of the twins, Lael, gives eating sausage directly from the skewer a try, which makes everyone laugh because she can’t quite handle the skewer.
As Shannon and Aaron help the twins eat and throw the airplane for their oldest son, they chat about their day. The casual atmosphere is what makes dinner feel like a special occasion, I realize eventually. There is ease in the way this family dines—playing and laughing. One of the twins offers each of us cans of sparkling water; the other wants to play baseball. It’s these kinds of playful moments over a shared meal that foster bonds and a shared past, ensuring family customs live on.