As I cleaned my grill in preparation for regular summer use, I started thinking about the history of backyard grills and grilling in general.
Believe it or not, your backyard is the epicenter for the creation of backyard barbecue grills; not Texas, or Georgia or ever-sunny California. Two of the grills most of us use today were invented right here.
The 1950s were a hotbed for grilling. In 1952, George Stephen invented what we now know as the Weber kettle grill by taking half of a marine buoy, welding three legs on the bottom, opening up vents underneath and pounded out a vented, domed cover (at that time, Stephen was a welder for the Weber Company Metal Works). The story goes that his neighbors called it a "sputnik" after Russia's first space ship.
Stephen's neighbors may have laughed at him then, but not long after he bought the company for which he worked so Stephen's charcoal grilling "sputniks" could be cranked out by the thousands. One of them sits on my deck today.
The first gas grill was also invented in the early 1950s, again, here in the Chicago area. Today's ubiquitous propane tank, which had originally been used exclusively by plumbers to fuel blow torches, was soon parked under grill carts to get lava rocks glowing.
In the subsequent decades we became a nation of outdoor cooks. Today, slightly more than two-thirds of all grillers use gas; the remainder use charcoal. Surprisingly, one in five owns both, as I did for a while.
Sure, a gas grill boasts easy startup, but a gas grill doesn't impart the flavor profile I find the most appealing. To get the flavor I want I choose hardwood charcoal. Pieces of charred oak burn cleaner and hotter than briquettes. After grease from my gas grill's reservoir spilled onto my wood deck, I converted to charcoal exclusively.
I also don't start charcoal with lighter fluid. I used to use an electric starter, but found, over time, that a chimney starter works best; getting a large charcoal load up to temperature in a fairly short time using just a few newspaper sheets.
I love grilling for its flavor-boosting and fat-cutting properties. Grilling burgers always produces lower fat, better tasting results than stovetop pan-searing. Over the years I've learned to leave the shells on shrimp, and the skin on turkey and chicken to ensure moist results.
I've also learned that a griller's most important safety tool is a fire extinguisher. They're reasonably priced, easy to use and if you ever need one, you'll be grateful you have it.
My other must-have tool is a long-handled digital thermometer. No more serving hockey-puck-like burgers or rare chicken when you have one of these on hand.
Try this recipe: Once I have my charcoal grill fired up, I always cook more meat than I immediately need. Recently, I added leftover grilled chicken sausage to a cheesy pasta dish. Grilled chicken or pork also would dandy.
• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.