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Weber Chronicles: Origins

December 7, 2012

Image from Weber.com.

It is a question that is not often asked explicitly, but usually implicitly with a quizzically poised eyebrow while I drone on about minutiae regarding outdoor cooking:  “Why the obsession with grilling, Mike?”

There are a million answers to that question, each one stacking up on top of the ones that came before it, just as any lifelong love is increased and intensified by the choices that constantly feed it.  My love for grilling is increased with every cook, with every new technique, with every new grill and tool, with every new friend I cook with, and most especially with every delighted bite of a family member or friend.  I am, therefore, I grill.

But this interest does have a beginning point in time, and a starting point in space: the mid-1970s, in a brand-new suburban development just outside Rockford, Illinois.   Behind that ranch house with brick veneer and tan T-111 siding is a Weber Kettle, that classic implement of American cooking.  Inspired in design by the metal buoys that he was welding every day at a Weber Brothers Metal Works in Chicago in the 1950s, George Stephen experimented and altered components until he had a covered outdoor grill that looked a bit like Sputnik.  The lid was key:  not only did it reduce the flow of oxygen to extinguish flare-ups, and not only did it allow the valuable leftover coals to be quickly snuffed out when the meal was finished, but that lid created a very effective outdoor oven.  It will cook anything from veggie hot dogs to smoked eggplant; from grilled peaches to prime rib; from roasted potatoes to paella.  Entrust your Thanksgiving turkey to the Weber just once and you will never go back.

Not the actual grill in question, but one lovingly restored by my Weber friend Troy Redington. He and this grill live in Rockford, which is perfect.

The grill so firmly set in my mind’s eye is hard to describe.  Not because of its shape and size– it is of the same dimension as the modern grills waiting patiently at the Home Depot– but because of its peculiar color.  I’ve always thought of it as blue, though others insist it is green.  60s-era Weber catalogs call the color ‘glen-blue’, and give the grill the stately title ‘The Imperial’.  A kind of sea foam color, it is quite the carryover.  All my life, I assumed it was purchased new at some hardware store in Rockford, but when I finally inquired of my dad this summer, he told me that he bought it at a garage sale when my sister was just a baby.  I grinned when I heard this, deciding that this genesis of my grilling life might go a long way to explaining my unnatural interest in used grills. It might begin to explain with why I spend so much time lurking on Craigslist, waiting for that certain grill in that certain color.  Second hand-grills, it seems, are in my genes.

When I was too young to be rightfully entrusted with the job, my dad would phone me on summer afternoons, “Mike, at about 4:45, I want you to put 40 coals or so on the grill and light it for me.  I’ll be home by about 5:20 to cook dinner.”  It was one of those jobs that we live into; a responsibility that stretches us out of childhood and toward adulthood.   Especially that summer when we were inexplicably out of lighter fluid for several months and I was expected to use Coleman camping fuel instead.  Dad assumed that Coleman fuel was much less volatile than gasoline, but I learned later in life that it is actually gasoline that has been further refined to remove impurities.  So yes, I used to play with gas and matches in the backyard.  It was the way we rolled back in the 70s.

These days, lighter fluid is a smelly memory– a bad aftertaste, literally and metaphorically– and we use chimney starters to much more efficiently and reliably light our coals.  And I’m not some nervous kid pouring gasoline on the grill and trying to get the match lit before it all evaporates, and my dad isn’t driving a rusty Olds home from the sales office at the factory.  Now, most of my interactions with  my dad are done over the phone.  His brain is now burdened with dementia, and he gets frustrated when the right words don’t come and he can’t always remember who he just called on the phone.  But we can always talk about Weber grilling– what we are cooking, what we are planning to cook, what we cooked once before, and which grill we will use for the Thanksgiving turkey this year (he always uses the very same ancient blue grill, but we still enjoy talking about it every year) .  The birthday card I got from him last week contained but one handwritten line:  “Go Weber!!”.  It is the language between us now, the vigil we keep as life marches on, the legacy we both pass on to our children.

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