This weekend, as I pull the cover off my propane barbecue and scrape last week’s carbon residue from the grill bars, I know how I’ll feel.
Because, while the propane grill marked a huge leap forward in backyard convenience (the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company gets the credit—dubious or otherwise—for inventing it, back in the 1960s), it ushered in an age of boring food. All those burgers, spatchcocked chickens, and vegetable kebabs Americans have cooked on propane grills over the decades that saw a cart grill on every apartment deck or in every bungalow’s backyard—what a missed opportunity. Instead of ending up with food that tasted grilled—charred and smoky—what we all got was the equivalent of food cooked directly on the grate of a portable butane burner.
The only smoke you get from the gas grill is from vaporized fat and meat juices dripping onto the metal heating element, not from actual smoke. And propane grills just don’t get hot enough. (Even charcoal grills can have issues. Back when my outdoor cooking was less compromised, I used a couple of bricks to jack up the charcoal grate in my Weber, just so the coals could be right under meats sizzling on the cook grate. Without the boost, food wouldn’t char.)
I’ve tried to hack my gas grill to produce aromatic heat: piled damp hickory chips in foil pie plates on the grill, and poked rosemary branches onto the heating panels. So far, nothing’s worked.
I won’t argue that the propane grill hasn’t made it easier to cook outside. You just lift the lid, open the gas valve, and lean on the starter—that's why I pretty much abandoned my old Weber charcoal grill. That meant awkwardly pouring irregular mesquite chunks from sooty bags and dealing with ash. I'd have to shoo the pets away from the crusty grates I'd set to the side to add fresh coals; the searing chimney starter had to be put down someplace after doing its duty—it called for planning, and a pair of good oven mitts I had to sacrifice to grease and charcoal smudges.
Of course, gas grills also require planning: I won’t say I've never had to transfer a leg of lamb from grill to oven, as a bunch of dinner-party guests watched, after my propane tank petered out.
But what you get with a charcoal grill, for all those smudged shorts and sudden flame-ups that you have to extinguish with a spray bottle and buckets of ash you have to dump in the trash, is food with real character. I'll think about that this weekend, as I wonder if the grate on my gas grill is hot enough to throw the salmon fillets on.