For most of the country Labor Day is the griller’s “last call,” but in Arizona grilling season extends year-round.
In the summer, to reduce home-cooling costs, women prefer sending their husbands out back to stand over a column of searing heat. By fall, the man has adjusted out there, and his wife has changed the locks.
Grilling behaviors remain traditional — men still lose eyebrows to gas jets, fight flames with a spatula and say “I know what I’m doing” twice for every pound of meat. But the grill is having an identity crisis. Your dad’s cast-iron rust bucket, where you learned to spill charcoal and swear, has given way to a line of gleaming, high-tech models that do everything but tell you how to finance them. Are these advances in cooking or commerce? Does a cow really care where its tenderloins toast? And when did lighting meat on fire get so damn complicated?
SOME GRILLS ARE AN ISLAND
They line up, every morning, in front of the home improvement stores. Long before the first day laborer or hooker hits the streets, stainless steel grills queue up along the entranceway, coaxing male customers with their shiny coats and saucy array of gauges.
Grilling was (probably) invented some 40,000 years ago, when Cro-Magnon man discovered the yak slice that fell into his campfire tasted better than the one that didn’t. From these humble beginnings, grilling reached the Gilbert Lowe’s home improvement warehouse, where operations manager Steve Eddy says prices vary from a $99 portable charcoal grill “all the way up to $1,700, which is kind of its own island.”
So what would Cro-Magnon man make of the $1,749 Jenn-Air Four Burner 62K BTU gas grill with infrared main burner, three stainless steel main burners, an infrared rotisserie, dual side burners, heat tents, an ice chest and an inlaid granite work space? My guess is that he’d hide from it: It’s enormous. Or he’d hunt for yak in any of its three spacious storage cabinets.
But Eddy says all the expensive high-tech serves a purpose. “You have infrared cooking technology. Some have a Teflon-coated glass plate that allow you to sear a steak at 600 degrees and seal the juices in.”
Creative Outdoor Kitchens in Mesa ups the ante even further: $5,500 will put you on a massive, granite-topped umbrella-laden backyard island with a 38-inch-wide, 302 stainless steel Fire Magic Monarch Magnum grill. It has headlights — really! — rotisserie, three cooking zones and a digital thermometer, and might actually be visible from space.
“We specialize in grill islands,” sales associate Matt Franze explains. “Backyards are becoming more of a destination spot. The grill is one part of the picture, but it’s about making your backyard a resort-style place.”
It would be beautiful at my home. But me, and my sparrow-dappled kettle cooker, would have to wobble elsewhere.
HEATING UP WITH THE JONESES
No one can argue that these tricked-out backyard behemoths don’t serve a need.
Grilling’s expensive renaissance can be traced to a number of factors: healthier eating habits, cable-inspired recipes with sophisticated nuances (“apply the ancho chili rub after the overnight marinade”) that take grilling far from its simple roots (“cook it till it won’t poison anybody”). And no one can dismiss the enduring desire of wives to get their husbands out of the house.
But at Creative Outdoor Kitchens, salesman Mike Shields agrees that many guys buy pimped-out cookers for the same reason they buy monster trucks: They’re big, and cool, and a 45-burger capacity is five burgers better than the other guy.
“Oh, definitely,” he says. “We get customers who come in and say, ‘Give me the biggest, baddest thing you’ve got.’ ”
“That’s just the nature of the beast,” Steve Eddy says. “You’re always going to get the ‘Tim Taylor’ type who just wants ‘biggest and best.’ You want to get the most grill for your money, without getting more grill than you need.”
That means knowing how ambitiously, and how often, you plan to use your grill. An expensive cooking island can be a good deal if you’ll spend lots of time there and want to bring your game up to the level of infrared burners and multiple warming trays. But if you just want to roast marshmallows poolside, you don’t need a grill that can hickory smoke a circus animal.
“We still have your basic traditional grills for $50,” Eddy says.
That’s more my speed. It may not be as pretty. But if it cooks the pink out of the center, my wife won’t complain, and the meat ain’t talkin’.