Grill Like You Mean It: The Case for Bringing Back Fire

The Weber made grilling convenient and popular—but it also banished the flames, the taste, and the mystery of the real thing

At the turn of the century grilling was very straightforward in this country. You summoned your family and friends, built a campfire, put some steaks, dogs, or burgers over it, then gathered around to critique the chef, remark on the day's events, and eat while watching the flames as your forebears had done for millennia.

Until George Stephen came along. He inherited a staid old company that made steel harbor buoys. But he was a griller. And he was tired of relying on the makeshift grill tops used at campsites those days. So he sliced one of his buoys in half, poked some air holes in the bottom, and instructed the perplexed people at Weber metals to start pumping out these adulterated things for cooking. So was born the iconic American grill.

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Outdoor cooking became portable and affordable, and anyone could produce consistent results. Then with the advent of briquettes (thanks to another thinker named Henry Ford) things became even more convenient. You didn't even have to know how to light a fire to pull off a respectable barbecue. Any fool could douse charcoal cubes with fluid, dodge the fireball, toss on dinner, and close the lid.

And close the lid we did. Granted there was still plenty of burger-poking going on, but this simple change in what Americans considered grilling was a big one. People moved a step away from the grill because there was nothing to see, no dancing flame to watch anymore. The grill closed like an oven and ceased being a social focal point.

Not to diminish the Weber phenomenon—this grill singlehandedly got Americans grilling outside on a scale not seen since Neolithic times. If you had a yard you had a Weber. It granted a departure from the pot roast or casserole of the weekdays. Kudos to Mr. Stephen and Weber.

But progress marched on. Weber and a host of others recognized America was in the midst of a cult of convenience, and in the '50s and '60s introduced grills that didn't even require a match. Gas moved out of the kitchen and into the backyard. Colorless, convenient gas.

Any day of the week, and on the weekends, you could walk outside, turn a knob, and be grilling in minutes. Close the lid, check the temp, grab a beer, and go about your business until it was time for dinner. Just like your range, but outside.

There is nothing wrong with convenience. Automatic transmissions are convenient. Take-out is convenient. Gas grills are convenient. Every single one of us decides what in our life should be convenient and what we want to involve ourselves in.

If you choose convenience for your grilling, more power to you. Really, all grilling is good. But if you are someone who geeks out about food, where it comes from, the preparation of it, and the hands that brought it to you, consider going back fifty or so years before it became normal to have a range on your patio. Apply that culinary involvement to a real, live, inconvenient cooking fire. You may not get the same results every time, and your hands will definitely get dirty. Oh, and because there is flame everyone will be watching your foolishness.

Fun, isn't it?

Image: Ben Eisendrath

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Ben Eisendrath is the president of Grillworks Inc., maker of Grillery wood-fired grills. Early Grillworks grills were used by James Beard himself, and today their designs are the favored grilling platform for many other live-fire chefs. More

It was a world-cuisine education begun early. After a childhood that began in London, moved to France, then grill-Mecca Argentina, Ben and his family were finally deposited by his journalist and grillmaster father in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ben studied Environmental Sciences, Literature, and Psychology for his BA at the University of Vermont�where environmentalism joined live-fire passion to form his philosophy of ecological and food-chain participation. Also a technophile from birth, out of college Ben was swept up by the digital wave and ultimately found himself living in Washington, D.C., directing product design at AOL headquarters. But his well-worn, Dad-built Grillery always waited at home, and after his 10-year AOL tour she finally won his full attention. �After all,� Ben says, �you can touch a grill.�

With the company fully reborn, today Ben designs Grillworks grills to be tactile, visually striking tools for amateurs and pros alike. They're now found in restaurants, kitchens and backyards all over the world�and since Ben believes grilling to be a seminal morale-builder, also at the forward operating bases of U.S. troops deployed abroad. The little grill Dad built, called "Magnificent" by James Beard himself, is thriving once again.

Ben writes and speaks about artisanal grilling and travels extensively to ensure his designs best harness the world's open fire techniques. He calls Washington home but still builds his grills near the family farm in northern Michigan.

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