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Summer Grilling | Origins | Palatine, Ill.

King of the grills

In five decades, the Weber kettle has gone from circular oddity to a defining symbol of American culture.

June 29, 2005|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

The man in an apron casually tongs quartered slabs of zucchini off the hottest part of the grill to the cooler edges, where they can be turned to expose angled stripes of caramelized flesh. Then peppers, yellow and red and blistered, and saucer-sized portabello mushrooms too. And finger-thick spears of asparagus, now freckled brown and fire-kissed.

The flesh of filleted salmon is weeping surface puddles of its own oils. The swordfish steaks have been turned, and there is a crackle over the heat; the translucent red of sliced ahi tuna has disappeared beneath a checkerboard cladding of white and flame-brown.

The lid comes up on the adjacent grill, and the patio fills with the summer smells of smoke, cauterized rosemary and melted garlic over roasting meat. The bones on the rack of lamb are as clean and white as piano keys.

To the right, another man tongs the chops -- the dainty rounds of lamb are heaped atop the skillet-sized planks of Midwestern pork. That way the smaller pieces of meat will not overcook. On another fire, he lifts the lid on the beef -- strip steaks, marbled and cut as thick as your wrist, sprinkled with garlic and pepper, charred but still plump and glistening.

In a swirl of aroma, smoke and heat-haze, the meat is pulled off the fire to rest.

The relaxed murmur of patio conversation fades to quiet as appetite and anticipation become urgent.

We have invited ourselves to lunch at the home of the Weber kettle. The man at the center of things, the man working the fish and vegetable grill, has kettle in his genes.

Jim Stephen grew up with a father whose tinkering strove for the impossible: an invention that would improve on the cooking technique of our caveman progenitors. Improbable as it seems, he found it. In 1951, George Stephen transformed a Chicago Harbor buoy into a lidded, grated and vented kettle that changed the world's concept of backyard cooking.

It's a word too easily thrown around these days, but icon is no stretch at all when it comes to this ridiculously simple -- and so far, unbeatable -- invention.

In short form, the story goes like this:

George Stephen inherited from his father controlling interest in Weber Bros. Metal Spinning Co. of Chicago. Among other things, the firm shaped sheets of metal into harbor buoys.

In the boom years following World War II, George joined a migration of prosperity into the suburbs. The how-to magazines of the era were full of project ideas for gracious living in the expanded backyard spaces of these new neighborhoods, and backyard fetes were an emerging pastime of the new American leisure lifestyle. In his yard, George erected a massive standing grill and cooking station of yellow brick -- an artifact that has since been moved to the entry patio at the headquarters of Weber-Stephen Products Co. in Palatine, Ill.

He invited friends and neighbors over for the inaugural cookout. "Everything got burned," Jim recounts. "According to my mom, he was fit to be tied."

At this point, we acknowledge a cliche: The American male does not take defeat at the grill lightly.

George began his quest for a better way. His inspiration: round instead of rectangular, like a buoy. The top could serve as a lid, which would control temperature so that everything didn't get burned.

Friends came over to see. They laughed. Whoever heard of a backyard grill that looks like a buoy, they said.

Born just one year before the kettle, Jim grew up in a world where dad's success was proven every night, all week long, winter as well as summer. The purpose of a snow shovel was to keep a path to the grill. A rite of passage in the Stephen family occurred when a youngster was old enough to start the fire.

George died in 1993, and son Jim is now chief executive of the privately held family company that employs 2,200 people in the business of making the world's best-known backyard grills.

Outdoor grilling is different from cooking in the kitchen -- countless experts and hundreds of grilling cookbooks are testimony to the belief. Yet when it comes to the kettle, they are mostly wrong.

Yes, the smoke of charcoal dusts food with flavored sprinkles of ash -- ancient flavors that can be adjusted according to type of charcoal or the addition of various varieties of wood chips or scattered herbs. And gas grills have come very close to doing the same thing by transforming drippings into smoke.

But the actual process of cooking?

On a standard 22 1/2 -inch grill, 25 briquettes on each side of the charcoal grate, or the equivalent in lump charcoal, creates a temperature of about 350 degrees on the middle of the cooking grate. That's the default roasting temperature of a standard oven, and it's called "indirect" grilling.

With the cover down and the vents open to draw air through the fire, the effect is like grill-roasting in a convection oven -- slightly faster than a still-air oven.

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