Gwyn Mellinger won first place in the feature columns category of the 2007 Heart of America Awards, sponsored by the Kansas City Press Club, the local affiliate of the Society of Professional Journalists. She snagged the honor in the under-50,000 circulation division.
In recent weeks a new gas grill appeared on our deck, after its predecessor succumbed to rust. We had used the previous appliance, a bottom-of-the-line basic grill, for at least 10 years, so we definitely got our money out of it.
I remember when we bought that first gas grill. We were among the last of our friends to surrender to the concept of gas-powered outdoor cooking, and our reasons were sound and noble. Without the flavor of charcoal, gas grilling was little different than cooking on the gas stove in the kitchen or under the oven broiler. When we cooked outdoors, we preferred to be purists who waited for the coals to glow before placing our dinner on the grill.
That whole period in my personal culinary history now reminds me of my reluctance to get a microwave when they began popping up in kitchens in the 1970s and 1980s. When I finally bought one, it quickly secured its place in my cooking routine, and I puzzled over my resistance to change.
In much the same way, the practicality of an outdoor gas grill trumped our sense of higher purpose - for three reasons. First, the gas grill allows the outdoor chef to light the fire and almost instantly begin cooking a meal. This is probably the factor that pushed me over the edge. Sometimes when the coals were slower to light, a late dinner meant grilling in the dark.
Second, while gas grilling is not the same thing as cooking over coals, cooking over an open flame does have its own culinary benefits. For one thing, fat is cooked away from meat; for another, marinades can be fused with meat and vegetables to different effect than with in-kitchen cooking methods.
And third, when the meal is being cooked on the patio, the kitchen indoors stays cool. Never mind that the cook has to stand outdoors in the heat at the grill or that the door gets opened repeatedly as the cook ferries food and utensils out of and back into the kitchen.
When we took the initial gas-grill plunge, we spent less than $150 and got a small, practical grill that did the job for basic grilling. This was definitely a fear-of-commitment purchase. That grill was slow to heat up and cooked a bit unevenly, but in the event we regretted making this move, we wouldn't feel too guilty if the new appliance became yard art.
Along the way the little grill got enough use that we replaced the jets in the bottom and gave it a new lease on life. When the grates finally rusted through, it was time to reinvest.
I had the same time-warp experience shopping for a gas grill after 10 years as I did the last time I bought a car and found that I hadn't even heard of most of the models on the lot and was unaware that cars now come with computerized options. It was all I could do not to come off like a wide-eyed rube.
Gas grills that are big, sleek and shiny and have side burners, a rotisserie and warming and smoking chambers can be had for under $300, but you also can spend hundreds, even thousands, more and get the equivalent of a fully equipped outdoor kitchen.
Again, we landed at the low end of the price spectrum, but we still have more gas grill than I ever intended to own.
Clearly, this makes us part of a significant trend in summer cooking. Five of the most prominent cooking magazines featured grilling on the covers of their June and/or July issues. And you just know that many of the readers who are following their lead, even on recipes that call for an old-fashioned fire, aren't waiting around for the coals to light.