I have a little Weber dome-top grill in my back yard that doesn't get much use and has gotten a little rusty over the years, so I don't profess to be an expert on barbecuing. Nevertheless, I do love to crank it up occasionally, and if my kitchen weren't on the second floor and my cats always trying to escape, I would surely break out the charcoal more often.
Despite my relative lack of experience over an open fire, though, I have come to wonder whether these enormous stainless steel, do-everything, impress-everyone, $4,000 gas grills that are proliferating in stores, magazines and catalogues aren't missing the point just a little. It seems to me they've taken us too far afield from the real attractions of barbecuing.
I don't want to impugn gas grilling in general, since it's obviously a useful, convenient and consistent way to cook out. Nor am I trying to suggest that high-end, six-burner grills with coolers, convection action, rotisseries and warming drawers don't have their place and their utility for some avid barbecuers. But is that really why people are buying these grills?
Based on the luxurious layouts one sees in home decor magazines, outdoor catalogues and at some barbecue retailers, one would never know that grills costing more than $1,000 represent just 1.5 percent of all barbecue grills sold, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. They do, however, account for nearly 15 percent of sales.
But these grills have had an upscaling impact on the whole outdoor grill market. Many grill buyers today are "trading up," and sometimes pretty significantly, making models in the $400-to-$800 price range the fastest-growing category in the business. Legions of people are going from a $100 or $200 grill to a more substantial, feature-laden style with something of the look and feel of the big-ticket versions most people can only drool over.
People want better grills for many good reasons. Barbecuing has gotten a tremendous boost as baby boomers age and more people entertain at home. And people who have taken advantage of historically low interest rates to remodel their homes or buy new ones have invested in inviting outdoor entertaining space.
Along with that new orientation have come books and television shows teaching people how to barbecue better, and this more knowledgeable audience wants the right tools to work with. There are now more than 50 companies making high-end grills, while a few years ago there weren't even 10. Expo Design Center can hardly keep its best-selling grill, the $1,199 Glen Canyon, pictured at right, in stock.
The culinary results from these pricey platforms may also be better than those from a hastily built charcoal fire. Separate burners and thermometers to get the heat just so make it easier to replicate your cooking successes and actually master a technique, rather than just hoping your leg of lamb comes out as well as it did last time.
But even barbecue experts aren't necessarily convinced that the fanciest grills are worth it. "There are many of these giant gas super-grills that don't perform any better than the smaller ones," said Steven Raichlen, cookbook author and host of the PBS television show "Barbecue University With Steven Raichlen."
"You could spend $400 on two very well-known brands of grills, where the drip pan . . . is one quarter of an inch deep. It's just a really stupid design," he said. "I think a lot of grills are designed by marketing people and engineers and not people who are actually cooking."
But maybe that's okay, because how many of these grills are being sold to people who really need all the features they're buying, anyway? Grill retailers are a bit defensive on this point, saying they always make sure people aren't buying more than they need.
Ed Eaton, for example, a district manager for Home Depot in New York, explained that people who are buying the biggest grills are "going for quality" and added that he has never gotten any feedback from customers about overbuying. Then again, he says, people want a grill they can be proud of, and they look for all kinds of ancillary features, such as the cooler on the bottom.
"They envision themselves grilling and handing out cocktails at the same time," he said.
And what could be more fun than showing off such a fancy toy to ogling friends and family? That's why this phenomenon is spreading.
"You go to your friend's house, you see someone who's got this [kind of grill], it becomes very aspirational: 'I want one of those,' " said Sydney Selati, president of retail chain Barbeques Galore USA.
Indeed, Donna Myers, a spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, said some retailers start salivating when they sell one $5,000 grill in a neighborhood, "because within a few weeks they know they're going to sell three or four more in the same neighborhood."
That's just the way we do things in this country. After all, do we really need $70,000 cars or $10,000 televisions? No, but they're fun and exciting and, in the case of the monster grills, as Raichlen put it, "full of testosterone."
But an expensive sports car or the latest TV technology actually improves upon something -- the ride, the picture. In reaching for the sleekest, biggest stainless grill, it seems to me, something may actually be lost.
Playing it safe when you're cooking outdoors misses the essence of barbecuing. Letting your gas grill do the driving just can't be as exhilarating and fulfilling as lighting a chimney of briquettes -- or real, honest-to-goodness charcoal -- mastering a flame and getting intimate with the cooking process.
"You don't get to play with fire very often in this modern age, and the more simple you keep it, the more you get that primal pleasure," Raichlen said.
Perhaps I'm not alone, because charcoal grills, which have steadily been losing ground to gas and are now just a third of the outdoor barbecue market, are starting to make a comeback. Some say it's a reaction to how fancy the whole barbecuing business has become. Raichlen thinks it's inevitable that when people really get into grilling, they'll want to get back to the "pure, pristine" method of firing up.
Even $4,000 can't buy you that kind of thrill.
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