A Taste of Grilling History

Memorial Day is probably more identified with outdoor grilling than any other day on the modern American calendar.  So . . . exactly when and how did Americans become so enamored with outdoor cooking, anyway?

weber1aOf course, humans have been cooking outdoors since the discovery of fire by our primitive ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, before the dawn of recorded history.  But in the ensuing millennia, outdoor cooking didn’t advance much beyond the basics of skewering a piece of meat on a metal spit and turning it over flames or coals until the fat dripped off — which wasn’t exactly well-suited to people cooking for their families.

Charcoal has been made since the early days of human civilization, and had been used for smelting, blacksmithing, and other industrial processes.  After the individual charcoal briquet was invented in the 1890s, people tried cooking outside on various flimsy devices, but the traditional problems that are familiar to any outdoor cook — food that is burnt on the outside and undercooked on the inside, thanks to poor temperature control — was a constant problem, and as a result outdoor cooking remained unpopular.

In 1952, George Stephen, a welder at the Weber Brothers Metal Works in Chicago, came up with the idea for the first modern outdoor grille.  Apparently inspired by marine buoys, he devised a sturdy, stand-alone kettle grille with a lid for temperature control.  Later, the Weber grille design with the familiar dome was introduced, and the gas grill was invented in 1954.  Those inventions coincided with the development of the American suburb, the Baby Boom, and the rapidly growing American economy in the years after World War II and the Korean War, and soon every American household had its own outdoor grill on the patio of their suburban home.  It was just natural that the first big grilling weekend would be the Memorial Day weekend, when the improving weather marked the start of the outdoor grilling months.

Any kid who grew up in the ‘burbs in the ’50s or ’60s remembers sitting at a picnic table eating cheeseburgers and hot dogs cooked by the Dads in the neighborhood who were clustered around their grills — typically while they wore embarrassing cooking outfits and swigged Budweisers — while the Moms brought out the potato salad and buns and condiments and sported brightly colored cat-eye sunglasses.  There’s a reason why the Monkees sang about “charcoal burning everywhere” in their ode to the generic American suburb, Pleasant Valley Sunday.

Of course, grilling has advanced since then, but the association of Memorial Day with outdoor cooking remains strong.  On this Memorial Day, grill on, America!

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Working For The Three-Day Weekend

In the distant, early days of Homo sapiens, there was no concept of “work” in the modern sense, and thus there were no holidays, either. Every day involved its many toils, from hunting and gathering to working to find shelter and water and protection against predators.

Then, as civilization developed, designated jobs became an inevitable part of the process. No city could exist without people charged with performing essential functions like laboring in the fields to bring in the crops, delivering food from the countryside, serving as scribe for Pharoah, or building the new pyramid or ziggurat.  The concept of holidays came later still. First, there were only religious holidays or seasonal holidays, to mark the Feast Day of Set or commemorate the harvest with a day of celebration. In the medieval era, when a saint’s day arrived, the duties of the job were replaced by lengthy religious obligations and, perhaps, fasting and the ritual wearing of a hair shirt.  It wasn’t exactly a laugh riot.

As humanity advanced even more, the concept of a work week was introduced and, then, secular holidays. When some brilliant soul realized that secular holidays really didn’t have to be tied to a specific date on the calendar and instead could float — so that the holiday could combine with a normal weekend to create a three-day weekend — it was a huge step forward in human development. And when an even more enlightened individual realized that we could use those three-day weekends to bookend the summer months, so that the joys of summer could begin with a glorious three-day revel in the warmth, it marked a true pinnacle in the annals of human achievement.

As we celebrate the joys of this three-day Memorial Day weekend, let’s remember those forgotten figures of human history who came up with the ideas that led us here — and be grateful that wearing sweaty hair shirts isn’t part of the equation.

Happy Memorial Day!

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We’ve had a beautiful weekend in Columbus, with sunny, clear weather and a traditional cookout yesterday.  With the arrival of Memorial Day, though, it’s time to take a step back and think for a while about the reason for this three-day weekend, and the men and women whose sacrifices in the service of their country helped to safeguard the many freedoms that we enjoy.

When I was a kid, Grandma and Grandpa Neal took UJ and me on a trip to Washington, D.C.  We visited Arlington National Cemetery, with its long, quiet rows of white crosses, and the Iwo Jima Memorial and its depiction of the stirring photograph of a flag-raising effort on Mount Suribachi during one of the bloodiest battles in World War II.  Those visits made a tremendous impression on me, and on days like Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Veterans Day I turn back to those awed, hushed memories and reflect on how many have served, and how well.

The inscription at the base of the Iwo Jima Memorial reads:  “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”  It’s a fitting point of reference on this Memorial Day.

A grateful thank you to those who served, and those who serve still.  Happy Memorial Day!

Happy Memorial Day!

The east side of the Ohio Statehouse features the Ohio veterans plaza.  It consists of two curved stone walls that face each other from opposite ends of the plaza, two fountains, and two grassy rectangles with room for flowers and plenty of Ohio flags that can be put in place for a holiday weekend.

The stone walls are adorned with snippets from letters written by Ohioans who were serving in the different wars in which America has fought.  It’s a simple yet elegant reminder of one unifying reality for all of the soldiers and sailors, regardless of when or where they fought:  they left home in service of their country, and as they put themselves in harm’s way they wanted to let the family back home that they were okay, that they accepted the cost of their service, and that they hoped to make it back home when their service was done.

This weekend they’ve also put up a simple wreath at the northern end of the plaza.  It’s a good place to reflect on the sacrifices of those who have served and to inwardly express our appreciation to them for making our current lives possible.

Profound thanks to all of our veterans, and happy Memorial Day to everyone!

That Wonderful Start-Of-A-Three-Day-Weekend Feeling

Today the French Wrestling Fan and I went to lunch at Milestone 229, a restaurant on the Scioto Mile.  We ate outside on a beautiful day, with a prime view of the cool outdoor fountains located next to the restaurant.

While we sat there a young girl took her shoes off and ran out to the fountain area.  She had a ball walking barefoot through the water, scuffling her feet and sending sprays of water into the air.  Her innocent fun captured the kind of giddy, fabulous feeling we all get on the cusp of a three-day summer weekend.  

It was all I could do to resist taking off my shoes and walking through the water, too.  We might need to do some barefooting this weekend, however.

Working On The Friday Before The Memorial Day Weekend

It’s the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, the first big three-day weekend of 2016.

The Martin Luther King Day and President’s Day three-day weekends don’t really count, do they?  They come during the winter when the weather stinks and it’s not much fun to go outside.  The Memorial Day weekend is different.  Now, people want to get outside and get going.  The traveling types want to hit the road, even though they know the traffic will be a pain, and get to their destination at the beach or the mountains or the national park as quickly as possible.  The stay-at-homers are looking forward to partying with friends and family, grilling out, playing catch, and swimming at the public pool on its opening weekend.  And everyone, whether they are staying or going, is looking forward to donning sunglasses and putting on shorts and drinking a cold beverage in warm sunshine.

empty-office-007We’re on the verge of the unofficial beginning of summer.  You can feel it in your bones, and today you’ll feel it in your workplace, too, as you walk past lots of empty offices and darkened cubicles and overhear co-workers talking about their fun weekend plans and see them anxiously looking at clocks and watches  and cell phones .

I’ve always thought the Fridays before the Memorial Day weekend and the Labor Day weekend are two of the toughest working days of the year.  If you’re smart and have the seniority, you take a vacation day and enjoy that magical four-day weekend.  If you’re a marginal employee, or worse, you wake up this morning and somehow convince yourself that you can plausibly call in sick on one of the days when workplace absenteeism undoubtedly is at its peak.  But if you’re a solid, responsible adult like the rest of us, you show up for work today, accept that it’s part of the job, and feel like a kid on the last day of school, just waiting for the bell to ring telling you that you can run out the school doors without coming back for three months.

I look at it this way:  working on the Friday before Memorial Day just makes the three-day weekend all the sweeter.