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?
Of 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!