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

By | July 7, 2020

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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.

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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.