Bring Grilling Out of the Caveman Era

And throw away your Mrs. Dash while you're at it. A look at what's hot now in America's backyards

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Don't even think of doing this.

Grilling, the most primal of all the ways Americans cook, is surprisingly susceptible to change. Fads come and go, and tend to reflect their eras almost as laughably, and as accurately, as hairdos or cars. Think of the suburban dad, complete with “kiss the cook” apron and oversized prongs, of the 50s and 60s; the teriyaki madness of the 70s; the skinless chicken breasts cooked over synthetic “lava rocks” in the 80s and 90s. So what defines grilling today?

I’d sum it up as DIY, part of a broad movement toward hands-on, creative work over the past 10 to 15 years that is not limited to the kind of overhyped, ludicrous fads like artisanal bitters. Yes, plenty of Americans sadly still plop skinless hot dogs and frozen boxed “hamburger” patties on the grill, ingesting a whole biota of mutant microbes and ethanol byproducts in the process. But they are as stuck in the 60s as if they were driving Trans Ams. Here are some of the things totally with-it grillers are doing in summer 2012.

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Using off cuts.Yes, there will always be a limited market for sweetbreads; after all, we are not Uruguayans. But there are plenty of off cuts Americans will like that are good for the economy (easier on consumers, better for farmers) and the environment (more food from the same number of animals). Cuts like pork belly, skirt steak, and chicken thighs also tend to taste better and more varied than your standard chicken breast. In fact, now that I think of it, let’s stop calling these “off cuts” or “variety cuts,” “economy cuts,” all of which suggest that any piece of an animal that doesn’t look like a steak or a center-cut chop is somehow inferior. It isn’t, not anymore. Sales of formerly declassé items like pork bellies and dark-meat chicken are rising across the country, in states both red and blue.

Ditching Mrs. Dash. That ancient bottle of Mrs. Dash seasoning you have in the back of your cupboard? Throw it the hell out. The same with Paul Prudhomme’s Meat Magic, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, and all the other dried out spice mixes that cooks have been using for decades as well as all the bottled marinades, or worse yet, salad dressings repurposed as marinades, in which chicken breasts and pork chops have been swimming for far too many years. Americans are becoming more familiar with the basic tools of inside cookery and are starting to use them outdoors too. The Internet has definitely helpedA lot. A clove of garlic, some jalapenos, a pepper mill: these are not the complicated tools of molecular gastronomy. Use them.

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Knife, meet food. Part of the whole DIY thing that can’t be emphasized enough is refusing to just take your little Styrofoam meat pack from the supermarket, peel off the plastic wrap, and throw it on the grill. (Double penalty if it’s a gas grill.) There’s always something you can do to make a fish, a chicken, or a pork butt better. Maybe it’s the “scruffing” technique described by my friend Adam Perry Lang in his new book; maybe it’s butterflying a leg of lamb. Maybe it’s as simple as cutting up your own fajitas. Whatever. The point is that in this day and age, with so many great knives available, why would anyone pass up an opportunity to use them? That’s the beauty of the DIY imperative: it makes you feel like you’re cheating if you don’t do something to your food. Which is a great thing.

Food that never had a pulse. As a carnist, I naturally think in terms of meat, and sometimes, rarely, poultry. But it’s becoming more common to see not just big, hard vegetables on the grill like peppers or corn, or smaller ones like asparagus, usually covered with a protective coating of prosciutto. Whole radicchios and even kale are hitting the grill — and not strictly as side dishes. In some cases grilled vegetables are the main event. OK, this is becoming depressing. Let’s move on.

Fuel matters. According to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association, a trade group I admit I had never heard of until writing this article, lump hardwood charcoal sales have been on the rise for the last few years, while briquettes have been trending downward. I take this as a positive sign, since any way you cut it, lump hardwood is harder to cook with than charcoal briquettes. It burns hotter, and much faster, and much less evenly. So you really have to attend to it. Again: it all comes down to the cook’s attention. Is it on the food, or is the food something that just exists as an excuse to drink beers and socialize? That question, more than anything else, defines where we are as a grilling nation in 2012. And I think the answer is pretty clear.

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