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!

The Value Of A Park

Living near Schiller Park — a sprawling, 150-year-old green space that covers multiple city blocks and is home to mature trees, picnic tables, lots of shade, a duck pond, a rec center, tennis courts, a playground, an outdoor basketball court, and a stage where the Actors Theatre of Columbus performs on summer evenings — has really shown me the value that a park brings to a community.

German Village has a very strong and distinctive neighborhood feel, and Schiller Park is a big part of that.  The park  is constantly in use, from the joggers and dog walkers who circle it in the early morning hours to the mid-day basketball and tennis players and parents pushing their kids ever higher on the swings, to the late afternoon birthday parties on the picnic tables beneath huge shade trees and people reading books on benches or playing fetch with their dogs.  You see the same people over and over, which of course reinforces the feeling of community, and you take pride in this beautiful patch of green that draws people like a magnet.  German Village without Schiller Park wouldn’t really be German Village at all.

In the American neighborhoods built before 1900, parks were of course part of the design — because green space and parkland were traditional in the countries of Europe from which many Americans of that era immigrated.  I’m sure the German immigrants who gave German Village its name never gave a second thought to putting in a large park, because it was just expected and obvious.  

At some point after 1900, though, the builders of suburban communities saw parks as less necessary, whether it was because they figured people would be driving around and not interested in walking to a park, or because they concluded that the acreage of a park could be more profitably devoted to still more houses.  As a result, many suburban communities are seriously park-deprived.  

It’s too bad, because a nice park really makes a difference and brings a lot of value to a neighborhood.

Everyone A Valedictorian

In Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, there are three high schools — and this year those schools produced a total of 222 valedictorians.  That’s fully 20 percent of the graduates from Dublin high schools this year.  One of the three high schools, Dublin Coffman, had 96 students who achieved “valedictorian” status.

There were about 800 students in my 1975 Upper Arlington High School graduating class, and there were less than 20 valedictorians.  They all achieved a perfect 4.0 grade point average — the higest possible GPA — during high school.  I knew many of them, and one was my best friend, The Entrepreneur.  He was a smart and motivated guy who worked hard to keep that four-point average because he knew that one misstep would knock him out of the running, and he really wanted to attain valedictorian status.  His friends, me included, were proud of him.

Those days are long gone in many schools, where educators consciously are trying to avoid competition for the “number one student” position.  And a 4.0 average is no longer the highest GPA you can get, either.  These days, many schools give additional GPA credit for “advanced” classes, to encourage students to take a more challenging curriculum.  At the Dublin schools, for example, you get “valedictorian” status if you achieve at least a 4.1 GPA.  The Dublin schools call students in that category “valedictorians” to allow them to qualify for college scholarships that are linked to valedictorian status.

(Apparently the Dublin schools don’t ask every one of their hundreds of valedictorians to make a speech at graduation — which means that the students really shouldn’t be called “valedictorians.”  A valedictory, after all, is a farewell address.  But, I digress.)

What does it mean when 20 percent of high school graduates obtain valedictorian status?  Call me old school — pun intended — but obviously being a valedictorian doesn’t mean what it once did.  You can’t help but wonder whether grade inflation has played a role and the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality hasn’t crept in to the academic honors process.

And, at a deeper level, it also reflects the diminished role of high schools.  For decades, high school was the end of the educational line for the vast majority of students.  Now high schools view themselves as just another step in the educational process, and their grading and honors policies are consciously designed to help their graduates get into the best colleges — where, perhaps, the real competition will begin.

Are we helping American students by designing high school to minimize real academic competition?  Because, at some point — whether in college, or in graduate school, or in the real world — true intellectual competition will in fact occur, and stress inevitably will come with it.  Maybe giving students a dose of competition and stress in high school would better prepare them for that oncoming reality.

Rearing “Free Range” Children

It’s high time for another screed about how America, at least as I understand it, seems to be vanishing.  This time, the precipitating event is a news story about parents in Silver Spring, Maryland who are under investigation by Child Protective Services because their kids walk the streets alone and play unsupervised in a park.

The parents recently were found responsible for “unsubstantiated child neglect” because they let their kids — a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old — walk home, alone, in December.  Now the parents are being investigated again because the two kids were playing together in a park at 5 p.m. on Sunday and another parkgoer reported the “unsupervised children.”  The parents, who are both scientists, believe that their “free range” approach will encourage their kids to develop independence and self-reliance.

UJ and I started walking alone to school in Akron when I was a five-year-old kindergartener and he was a six-year-old first-grader.  Mom packed our lunches, bundled us up if the weather required it, and set us off on a mile-long trek to Rankin Elementary School.  This was viewed as normal behavior in those benighted days of the early ’60s, just as it was viewed as normal in the ’70s when UJ and I rode our bikes to our junior high school in Upper Arlington.  Nobody talked about “free range” children back then because every kid was a “free range” kid — even though the “free range” phrase wasn’t invented until years later in connection with chicken.  Amazingly, kids were viewed as capable of walking to school, riding bikes to their friends’ houses, and playing sandlot baseball or a game of tag in a park without having the watchful eyes of parents on them every waking moment.

At some point that all changed . . . and in a poisonous way.  Now we apparently view our neighborhoods — even in Silver Spring, a suburb of Washington, D.C. — as so inherently dangerous that children can’t be alone on the streets even during daylight hours, and what’s more if kids are spotted outside without parents nearby our instinct is to report the parents for child neglect, even if the kids seem healthy, happy, well-adjusted, and fully capable of playing by themselves.  Rather than making our streets safe for unsupervised kids — if in fact they are truly unsafe, as opposed to the focus of overblown concerns brewed in the fevered imaginations of helicopter parents who must arrange every element of their kids’ lives — our approach is to investigate parents and put them on the watch lists of government agencies just because they don’t monitor their kids’ every move.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d want to live in Silver Spring, Maryland, where busybodies apparently feel good about reporting unsupervised kids in a park on a sunny Sunday afternoon and authorities dutifully investigate such claims and hassle responsible parents who hope to encourage their kids to develop a sense of independence.  Is every town in America like Silver Spring, Maryland these days?  Have we really gotten to the point where parents who simply let their kids play outside unattended are viewed as so irresponsible that we need to sic Big Brother on them?  What kinds of lost adults are the constantly cosseted kids of modern America going to turn out to be?

Walking To The Grocer’s

When Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C. years ago, we walked to the Safeway on Capitol Hill and, later, the Safeway in the Watergate in Foggy Bottom.  Like many other D.C. residents, we had a stand-up metal cart that, when folded out, could comfortably fit two full paper bags of goods, and that was how we carted our food back home.

When we moved to the suburbs of Columbus we kept that cart for a while but never used it, and finally we gave it away to the Salvation Army.  The suburbs are made for cars, not carts, and as the boys grew up, and showed the appetites that boys always have, we needed far more than two bags of groceries, anyway.

Now that we’re back to just the two of us, the idea of walking to the grocer’s, just as we did in our pre-kid days, is appealing — and I wish we still had that cart.  We’ve got a Giant Eagle in one direction and a Kroger in another; both are about 10 blocks away.  Yesterday afternoon I walked to the Kroger to shop.  It reminded me of some of the benefits of walking to the grocer’s.

For one thing, it encourages discipline.  You need to carry home everything you buy using your own muscle power, not horsepower.  This tends to encourage making thoughtful lists and avoiding impulse purchases.  At several points yesterday I weighed whether to buy something, took a look into my basket, and voted no because it probably would put me over the two-bag carrying limit.  You also tend to avoid the heavy and ungainly giant-size options.  The inevitable result is less food around the house at any given point in time . . . and less food going bad.  And, of course, you also get the exercise of walking to the store in the first place, and then the combination walking-carrying exercise on the way back.

My walk to the grocer’s yesterday felt good, and it brought back some memories, too.

Market Magic

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Like many cities, Seattle has a central marketplace.  This one is crammed with flower stalls, meat markets, restaurants, fishmongers, vegetable purveyors, fresh crab on ice, jugglers, ukelele players, and bars.  Needless to say, it’s a beehive of activity.

Long ago, virtually every big city had sprawling central market buildings.  In the last century, many cities tore them down, reasoning that they weren’t needed as people moved to the suburbs and the supermarkets began to rule the food world.  A few cities held on — and they should be happy they did.  Whenever Kish and I visit a new place that has a central market, that’s always a stop on our itinerary, and inevitably the central market is a fun, interesting place that puts the city in a good light.

Gas, Alas!

If you haven’t been to the filling station lately, I’ve got some bad news for you:  gas prices are spiking, again.

At our local Duke gas station, the price for a gallon of regular is creeping ever closer to the dreaded $4.00 mark.  And even if you go to Giant Eagle and get your advantage card discount, $60.00 fill-ups have become distressingly commonplace.

Increasing gas prices are a powerful downer, because there’s no realistic way to avoid them — unless, like the Bus-Riding Conservative, you live close to a bus line and are willing to conform your schedule to the timetable for the no. 4 bus, or the predictability of your work schedule allows you to car pool.  For most of us suburbanites, those aren’t realistic options.  Driving our car in to work and back every day is a necessary part of the daily routine, and the price of gas hits us directly in the pocketbook.  If, like me, you need to gas up about once a week, the difference between $2.50 a gallon gas and $4.00 a gallon gas quickly becomes more than chump change.  Add to that the increases in prices of groceries and other commodities that are delivered by gas-guzzling trucks, and the impact becomes even worse.

As far as the politics go — and in a presidential election year, everything has to be viewed through a political lens, doesn’t it? — President Obama’s allies will argue that greedy, gouging oil companies are to blame, and Republicans will contend that if President Obama had allowed more aggressive oil exploration and domestic production, the increased supply would have materially lowered the price by now.  And those who live in large urban areas and don’t use cars, anyway, probably aren’t go to feel much of a pinch.

But those of us in the heartland, where many of the “battleground” states are found, are feeling the pain.  It’s aggravating to go to the pump, see those numbers whiz by in a blur, and realize another $60 has flown out of your wallet.  My guess is that angry, frustrated voters aren’t a good thing for the incumbent.