For many of us, Memorial Day signals the official beginning of the annual grilling season in Minnesota.
I had the opportunity to attend a couple of cookouts during the course of the weekend, and they offered some insight into the nature of this great American summer pastime.
The first thing I noticed is that a cookout is one of the few times in life where it is considered not just acceptable but appropriate for a man to brag about his equipment and his proficiency in using it.
The first cookout I attended was sponsored by the sales department in our office.
This was a chance for The Old Philosopher to debut his shiny new gas grill.
He was justifiably proud of this equipment, and he spent the afternoon waxing lyrical about its superiority, especially in comparison to the previous model.
We all had to stop by and admire it.
The O.P. swings a mean spatula, and has probably forgotten more about tailgating than some people will ever learn. When it comes to tending a grill, he can be counted on to deliver the goods.
Cookouts are often the scene of debates over one of life’s eternal questions.
Through the ages, men have pondered deep questions such as “Coke or Pepsi?” “Paper or plastic?” But, at a cookout, the question that is debated on decks and patios across the country is “which is better gas or charcoal?”
This can be as divisive a question as one will ever encounter.
Men have come to blows over it, and families have been torn asunder.
It is difficult to remain neutral. One friend of mine has said she is willing to be open minded, but she is trapped between a husband who is a die-hard gas grill user and a father who believes cooking with anything other than coal is unacceptable.
A sensible curmudgeon has no interest in jumping into the middle of this hornet’s nest, but we can perhaps lay out some of the claims that are generally made by those on either side of the gas/charcoal question.
Proponents of gas grills point to versatility, speed, ease of use, and temperature control as benefits of their system.
Charcoal fans, on the other hand, say none of that matters, because nothing imparts the flavor that can be achieved by grilling over a bed of charcoal.
Charcoal grills can be cheaper to purchase than gas grills, but the fuel cost per cookout can be higher for charcoal than for gas.
At least one person I know might argue that charcoal grills are safer than gas.
The young man who tended the grill (charcoal) at the second cookout I attended over Memorial weekend was nearly killed by a gas grill.
On his honeymoon, he and his new bride stayed at the Arizona vacation home of a relative.
They picked up some dead animals to cook, and when dinner time arrived, he went out to start the grill.
He recognized it as an ancient model of the type that had been popular when he was a child.
It had apparently not seen much action in recent years.
The instructions said to press the igniter button up to 17 times. He had just reached number 15 when there was a loud WHOOSH and a cloud of gas exploded, singeing all the hair on his arms and face, and nearly causing him to spill his beer.
His wife, inside the house, said it sounded like someone dropped a sofa from a great height. She rushed out to find someone who looked like Wile E. Coyote on one of his bad days, with huge white eyes staring back at her from a blackened face.
They cooked dinner indoors that night.
Grills were once among the simplest methods of cooking, but that is no longer always the case. They have grown bigger and much fancier over the years.
I was strolling through a home improvement store recently with a friend when he suddenly changed direction like a moth drawn to a flame.
He stopped in front of the biggest gas grill I have ever seen.
It was at least eight feet wide and made entirely of gleaming stainless steel.
This thing was big enough to have its own ZIP code.
It had an enormous cooking surface with multiple burners, and it contained an abundance of drawers and storage bins.
It had hooks for tools and a built-in refrigerator for keeping beverages cold while one worked.
This monster actually had a roof over it with built-in task lighting.
It was like a commercial kitchen on wheels, and I am sure one would need to get planning permission to bring this bad boy home.
Any similarity between this beast and the basic kettle grills that we grew up with was purely coincidental.
Despite the fact the my friend already owns a very nice stainless steel gas grill that is only a couple of years old, he spent an awfully long time examining this one, and I am sure he was calculating whether or not it would fit on his new deck and what his wife might say if he brought it home.
The gas/charcoal question may never be resolved, but one thing is clear. The smell and sound of outdoor cooking will always be a sign of summer in Minnesota. It will probably continue to be a good source of entertainment, as well.