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Every Man A Master Chef: How Grilling Conquered American Back Yards

Culture | July 8, 2020

Left: a man demonstrates the exciting art of grilling for TV cameras in the '50s. Right: cover of the 1973 Weber products catalog. Source: Weber-Stephen Products archive, via smithsonianmag.com

The portable grill -- the Weber kettle-style grill in particular -- changed suburban culture in the '50s. Apron-clad husbands and dads were inspired to take to their back yards, to char meat over a charcoal flame. Men were cooking for their families or party guests, a role that otherwise was unquestionably the woman's. 

Today, we are a nation of grillers; no suburban back yard is complete without a grill, and those with the means can spend a small fortune on their setup. How did this outdoor appliance come to exist and why are Americans obsessed with it?

In the postwar years, the U.S. saw a prosperity boom that resulted in rapid growth of the suburbs. People had money to spend; they moved out of their city apartments to a house (with a white picket fence) and commuted into work in the cars they could now afford to buy. These new pastoral settings had new social habits and schedules. Suburbanites had fewer restaurants to patronize, and they now had vast grocery stores teeming with produce and meat all under one roof. A man could have a special occasion on his own property, whether with his own family or with guests from across the cul-de-sac. This was a different way of living from the years before World War II, and different from the day-to-day everywhere else in the world. 

The American '50s man developed rituals that his father hadn't -- lighting coals, fussing over marinades, keeping the grill cleaned and the tools organized, delivering to everyone a burger or steak cooked to their desired doneness, all while knocking back a cold bottled beer and surveying with pride the lawn he himself had mowed earlier that day. Grilling was a special manly feat that could be performed any weekend evening, and became, for some, a requirement for those red-letter days on the grilling man's calendar: Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day. While we've left behind many institutions of '50s culture, grilling isn't one of them -- with ever fancier grills, smokers, and outdoor deep-fryers, we're putting meat to heat in the great outdoors more than ever.

The start of suburban dad grilling. (vintagecookbooks)

From the caveman days up to the invention of the first Weber grill, man put flame to meat with grilling in mind to middling success. In fact, prior to the ‘50s, a grill was merely an outdoor pit and few men saw any cache in standing around a campfire “cooking.” Back then, men saw their domestic role as killing varmints and taking out the trash. However, thanks to a man named George Stephen, a metalworker, a man’s man, and most importantly, an heir to the controlling interest of Weber Bros. Metal Spinning Co, grilling became a point of pride for men across America.

The Invention Of The First Weber Grill

With enough creativity a harbor buoy became the quintessential grill. (pinterest)

When you tell people you’re grilling, the first image that flashes into their mind is the round bulbous form of a black Weber grill. Obviously, with the popularity of backyard grilling today, some grills more closely resemble space ships than the classic Weber but that’s where it all started. Those first Weber grills came from harbor buoys.

That’s right. Old George Stephen looked at the harbor buoys his company manufactured and thought, “I can make a hell of a grill out of this.” He did it by cutting a harbor buoy in half along the equator, added a grill and vents for temperature control and bang, the first Weber grill was born. Backyard barbecuing would never be the same. 

Barbeque Vs. Grilling

The subtle but big difference between grilling and barbecuing. (kvue)

For those who don’t know, there is a well-established difference between barbecuing and grilling. Barbecuing employs the low and slow technique, deliberately cooking the meat, many times for hours. Grilling on the hand happens with the lid up and flame on high. For easy reference, you grill hot dogs and you barbecue a pork butt.

Gas Sparks The Flame Of Popularity

Grills have come a long way since the first days of the Weber. (pinterest)

Now if you ask any real barbeque enthusiast which they prefer charcoal or gas, they’d all emphatically respond charcoal. Nevertheless, in the ‘60s, two men hoping to sell more natural gas, William G. Wepfer and Melton Lancaster, redesigned the classic Weber to run on gas. That small innovation made backyard grilling even easier and opened up the world of grilling for clueless dads everywhere. 

What Made Man Grill?

Grilling is unquestionable American. (weberkettleclub)

As we mentioned, grilling didn’t hit it big until the ‘50s and while the invention of the Weber grill helped spark that flame, it doesn’t explain why so many men suddenly became obsessed with outdoor cooking. Ultimately, it was a number of factors that made grilling a must-do male activity:

The Great Outdoors: As families moved out of cities and into the suburbs, backyards became centers of activity. America’s national pastime, baseball, really kicked into gear, and playing catch with your dad went hand in hand with waiting for the hot dogs to finish.

Cars: Weber’s boom coincided with the rise of automobiles in America. Suddenly, your average family was taking road trips and grilling on the road became the home away from home as families enjoyed their newly found freedom.

Along Came A Patio: Unlike the after the Great Depression, families of the Groovy era enjoyed a more prosperous financial future. The suburbs swelled with families looking for more space and what better way to use that space than a patio. Once those became all the rage, it became clear you needed a Weber to complete the perfect backyard setup. If you grill it, they will come.

Man’s fascination with flame runs the course of human history. We all have a little pyro in us. The suburban kingdom earned through dad’s hard work complete with the meat on the grill checked all the boxes of the burgeoning American male ego. We’re pridefully kind of stupid like that. 

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Grilling | Suburban Life

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!