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It cannot be that people think food cooked on a $6,000 grill tastes 30 times better than that cooked on one costing $200, any more than people who buy Manolo Blahniks expect to be able to walk 30 times as far as those who wear Keds. The backyard has become part of the home-improvement trend that market researchers call "fluffing the nest." The grill has entered the world of luxury goods, status symbols, showmanship and precision performance. Kalamazoo, a small company in Michigan, sells its customized sculptural grills largely for their beauty. Boris Yeltsin has one at his dacha, according to the company. It's no accident that stainless steel--functional, low maintenance and totally showy--has become the metal du jour for all early 21st century grills. And where luxury items go, the mass market follows: Coleman released a stainless-steel grill this year.
Despite evidence that eating proteins cooked at high temperatures can cause cancer in animals, the popularity of barbecuing has not waned. One reason may be that the grill bill of fare is no longer simply meat with a meat chaser. The Kansas City pitmaster and the Texas brisket king are alive, well and perfecting their marinades and slow-cooking techniques. But the backyard griller can now prepare every part of the meal on his (and it is still mostly his) grill, from breakfast to dessert. "The barbecue moved from the center of the plate to the outside," says cookbook author Raichlen, who has recipes for grilling lettuce, pizza and creme brulee in his book. "People now prepare their vegetables, starches and polenta on the grill."
As the American palate increasingly accepts and incorporates foreign cuisines, grilling is an early adapter. "The Indonesian satay guy, the Indian tandoori master, the Argentinian asador, the Mexican carnita lady all have a lingua franca with the Texas brisket guy," says Raichlen. But to cook these new dishes, the patio daddios need temperature control, they need more than one method of cooking and they at least think they need to upgrade constantly. "We tell people the [$5,000] Ultimate Grill is the last grill they'll ever have to buy," says David Lally at Frontgate, a high-end home furnishings-catalog company. "But it isn't the last grill they buy." Barbecuers are also enhancing the grill thrill with an array of accessories, some high-tech, like forks and tongs with built-in meat thermometers, and others low tech, like customized branding irons (presumably not to be used with that other indispensable barbecue accessory, beer).
The plethora of grilling gear is only partly a case of consumerism run rampant. Barbecuing is the classic multitasking cuisine. First, there's the sheer spectacle of it: it's cooking as showing off. Grillers with a flair for the dramatic can cook such eye-catching dishes as beer-can chicken (cooked standing upright on two legs with a half-drunk beer shoved into its cavity). Then there's the opportunity to network. Who can resist rallying around the chef while he slaves over the swordfish? As Raichlen says, "Nobody ever comes and gives me a beer and a kiss hello when I'm deep-frying."