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Published: 4/19/2011

To many of us, the grill is the thrill

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

I have been known to grill outdoors in the snow.

I have been known to grill outdoors in the rain, holding an umbrella (looking a little pathetic, actually) over the glowing coals to keep them dry.

Recently, when I was asked to name my favorite cooking implement, the first thing I said was a grill (which is odd, because I’d be utterly lost without my chef’s knife).

I love grilling, and apparently I am not alone.

In a new survey conducted for Weber Grill, almost half of all respondents said they grill or smoke-cook all year round. Thirty-seven percent of us do it at or below freezing temperatures.

We’re the not-so-few. The proud. The bitterly cold. And you know, the heat from the grill is nice for warming your front side while you’re in front of it, but that only makes the back side feel that much colder.

According to the survey (1,000 respondents, half men, half women, random but demographically balanced), 96 percent of all Americans — that’s all Americans — grill burgers outdoors. Almost 70 percent of the respondents said they had grilled hamburgers in the last year, followed by steak, chicken, hot dogs, and ribs.

The most challenging food to grill outdoors was deemed to be desserts, followed by fish and pizza (tied), shellfish, and fruit.

I disagree. You put a slice of pineapple on the grill. When you try to turn it, it slips through the grate, lands on the coals, and is quickly incinerated into a smoldering hunk of black carbon. What’s so hard about that?

Incidentally, it is quite easy to grill fish, too, but you have to have the right equipment. Most places that sell grilling equipment also sell wire baskets that keep fish intact while on the grill and make turning them a breeze. And relying on such items doesn’t make you less of a griller; about one in four of the survey respondents say they now use grilling accessories more than ever.

If you ask a sociologist or a culinary anthropologist why we are so compelled to grill, they inevitably prattle on about how grilling satisfies a primal urge dating back to our Cro-Magnon ancestors first picking at the flesh of a goat that fell into a fire. And then, if they are anthropologists, they will go on to state that we don’t call them Cro-Magnons anymore, we call them Anatomically Modern Humans, which goes a long way toward explaining why anthropologists are rarely invited to parties.

And yes, as Dave Barry would say, Anatomically Modern Humans would make a great name for a rock band.

Anyway, I think the whole primal, Cro-Magnon argument is a lot of hooey or at least a lot of over-intellectualization. The real reason people love to grill, I suspect, is much simpler: Grilled food tastes good.

Every method of cooking imparts a distinct taste to the food. Grilling gives it a smokiness, an irresistible interaction between flame and fat, and a bit of caramelization from the char (the carcinogens are there for extra flavor!). Indirect heat, direct heat, adding wood chips to the fire — they are all ways of transforming the simple act of grilling into an art.

I personally prefer to use charcoal, which puts me in the minority (67 percent of grillers use gas). The charcoal, which is made from slowly burning wood and other materials, has a familiar taste of its own that enhances the flavor of basically everything. Gas is more convenient, of course, and it has the advantage of getting you quicker to where you culinarily want to go.

But that only matters if you’re outside in the snow and rain.

Contact Daniel Neman at  dneman@theblade.com  or 419-724-6155.



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