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Culinary Curiousities: Backyard Grills

Cookouts have always been a part of the American cultural landscape, but it was that little patch of green in the backyard that ushered in the golden age of grilling that we now enjoy. After World War II, a flood of returning GIs bought suburban homes with backyards. Purchasing a grill for the patio made it fun and simple to entertain. Kids could run through the sprinkler or play in the yard while mom whipped up a few side dishes and dad fired up the coals. Once the grill is hot it’s just as easy to cook a dozen (or more) burgers as three or four, so why not invite the neighbors? The food is good and it’s a lot less work than a formal dinner.

In the Midwest we often used the terms barbecue and grill interchangeably, but technically grilling means cooking over an open flame (or high heat source) while barbecuing is a low-and-slow technique over indirect heat. The word “barbecue” came from the Arawak people of South America and the Caribbean, who cooked meats on a wooden frame of sticks that the Spanish explorers called “barbacoa.”  Grilling and barbecuing have been a part of American cookery since colonial times, although barbecue has deep roots in the South. 

Open brazier-style grills have always been popular, especially when camping or picnicking. In the early part of the 20th century, portable wire grills with fold-up legs were easy to pack and set-up over a campfire. Grilling technology got a boost from the Ford Motor Company when Henry Ford and E.G. Kingsford (who was married to Ford’s cousin) began to manufacture charcoal briquettes from the wood scraps and sawdust left over from the assembly line. Originally called Ford Charcoal, it was later renamed after Kingsford. When customers bought a Model T, they could also get one of Ford’s “picnic grill kits” with a portable grill and branded charcoal.

Coleman portable stoves also made a significant contribution to grilling history: The U.S. Army approached the Coleman company and asked it to develop a portable stove for use in the military. It had to be extremely light (less than 3 pounds), small (not bigger than a quart of milk), easy to light and able to burn a variety of fuels. In an incredibly tight turnaround of two months, Coleman produced the stove and 5,000 were shipped to be used during the invasion of North Africa in 1942. After the war they were popular with civilian campers and hikers.

The next big advancement came in 1952 when George Stephen of Weber Brothers Metal Works decided to cut a metal buoy in half to create the iconic kettle-style grill. The lid prevented ash from blowing out and kept the smoke and flavor in. Adjustable air vents allowed for better heat control and three legs kept the grill stable. Affectionately nicknamed “Sputnik,” it was originally sold under the name “George’s Kettle Barbecue” and retailed for $29.95. It was a hit.

Gas grills hit the scene in the 1960s, converting the propane cylinders that plumbers used as a heat source. According to a 2017 survey by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, 7 in 10 adults own a grill or smoker, with 64 percent preferring gas and 44 percent choosing charcoal. Whether gas or charcoal, grills are seeing more use year-round: Grillmasters are firing up on Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day and Super Bowl Sunday. Grill accessories and gadgets have exploded, allowing more ease and experimentation with pizza stones, perforated baskets, salt slabs and cedar planks. Fruits, veggies and even dessert are getting in on the smoke and char as well.

There is something for everyone in the backyard, from the voice-and-app-operated Lynx SmartGrill to the inexpensive, tailgate-ready Weber Smokey Joe. So make the most of your grill season, no matter how short or long it may be. And don’t forget to invite the neighbor! 

Julie Brown-Micko was raised on sugar cereals and lots of hamburger casseroles, but survived and thrived in a Le Cordon Bleu culinary program.  A sometime writer, candy maker and pastry chef, she’s happiest combining her love of food and writing.  Her work has appeared in restaurants such as The Bayport Cookery and publications such as Minnesota Monthly and Foodservice News.

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