I hate gas grills. Perhaps hate is too strong a word. No, hate is the word. While I love gas ranges, and only wish I still had one instead of the electric coils beneath ceramic glass in my new apartment, when it comes to outdoor meat cookery, gas is a perversion and a corruption, effete and decadent. It justifies every jeer we heard from behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War: voices that said that America had gotten weak and lazy, and that we had become addicted to our own capitalist comforts, crippled by affluence and the soft life.
Were the commies right? Maybe so. Why would someone spend over a thousand dollars (and in some cases, much more) on a machine that does its primary function so badly? Because it's easier to light? Because it looks cool? Because they don't like the taste of wood and smoke and the perfume of hardwood fumes? Someone please explain this to me.
What's so galling about my lifelong war against gas grills is how little they deliver for their Faustian promise. You're giving up not just flavor, but also the whole feeling and joy and physical connection that a person gets to his food when cooking naturally. Gas is grossly artificial, abstract, a formula for the feeding of indifferent crowds. There are no flare-ups, and no ash to throw away, but there is also no crust, no fire, no woodsy taste or sizzling, succulent fat. Gas is pabulum, Soylent Green, a medium for medicating hunger and killing time. It's nihilism in a tank, and it has to stop now.
Consider: it's spring, and June is around the corner. We've been shivering in the darkness and cold for six months. Is this really how we will reaffirm life? Grilling, for Americans, is more than a mode of cooking outdoors; it's a rite of spring, an affirmation of our status as citizens of the land of plenty, free to eat and drink the sunny uplands of human freedom. For that reason alone, gas should be outlawed. It shouldn't require an expensive appliance to grill. It should be equally within the reach of every American. Moreover, as a free and mobile people, we should be able to grill wherever we want: on roofs, on beaches, in parks, in arena parking lots. But all of these are places your gas grill can't go. If you want to feed people at your gas grill, they have to go to your house. And how free is that? You are a prisoner of hospitality, charged with cleaning and entertaining, and then getting rid of your drunken guests after the fact.
And of course, all this overlooks the incontestable fact that gas grilling is actually much more complicated and laborious than real grilling. At the store, they tell you about how you will light your weird blue flames with the touch of a button, or how some miracle polymer will hold the heat better than any coal. What they don't describe is the drive, inevitably at the last minute, to refill your propane tanks because you forgot to close the valve, or because, being dead, blank, enormous metal spheres without any kind of fuel gauge, they impart no information to their owner. Whereas even a blind man can tell how much wood or coal he has by lifting the bag.
Meanwhile, consider the beauty and power of hardwood coals. Whether in the form of blazing branches, whitened lump embers, or the slow, flicking fire of hickory chunks placed artfully near one another, that heat source is a primal element, a part of the universe under your temporary control. It's the heart of the sun, the molten core of the earth, the light of the world in the very truest sense. It's energy and it's matter and it's the fragrant taste of smoke, the miraculous compounds of million minerals all released at this one special moment. It flavors the meat as it cooks, and cooks as it flavors, and the art of mastering its miracle is a lifetime's happy work. Beside it, the most intricate gas grill is a crude and clumsy machine, and the only taste it gives is of the death chamber at San Quentin and the fear of imminent explosion.
To grill over wood is to be most fully human; grilling over gas is to see the world through a Darth Vader mask, inhuman and "half-dead in his accoutrements," as the critic Mark Crispin Miller once wrote of that fearsome Sith lord. Add in the cost, the ease of use, and the ineffable flavor and incandescent flame afforded by coals, and there is only one way to go. Choose live fire, and say goodbye to gas.
Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. You can listen to his weekly show at the Heritage Radio Network and read his column on home cooking on Rachael Ray's website. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.