personal essay

How I Learned to Love Grilling (After 2 Decades of Avoiding It)

published May 21, 2020
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Vintage photo of woman grilling a hotdog with man in lounge chair nearby
Credit: Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images

For years — decades, if I’m being honest — I always dreaded summer, aka grilling season. Of course, kebabs and fajitas are perfectly harmless, but America’s obsession with cooking outdoors screwed up my light reading. As June approached, otherwise enjoyable food magazines became useless to me with their cover promises of “72 Genius Grilling Upgrades” and “59 Ways to Fire Up Your Summer.” Save it for someone who cares! In other words, people who had accessible outdoor space. 

As someone who lived in NYC for most of my adult life (20 years, to be exact), on more than one occasion I took those warm-weather magazine issues directly from the mailbox to the recycling bin. (Okay, I might have given some a quick skim first.) At least online you can just scroll past irrelevant content. 

Then a year-and-a-half ago I moved back to my hometown of Portland, Oregon, and became a homeowner for the first time in my life — and my attitude toward grilling changed. If anyone had told me just a few years ago I would become the type of person who possessed green space and a grill, I might not have believed it. I must’ve been a pent-up suburbanite because as soon as I saw the small, landscaped backyard and cement patio, I immediately envisioned outdoor seating and a gas grill (even my fantasies are practical — charcoal was out of the question). 

My decision to buy a grill was superficial at first. It didn’t hurt matters that Weber had added new handsome colors like turquoise, ivory, and red to its lineup of smaller gas grills — especially since I’m a sucker for a hit of unexpected color. Black or stainless steel wasn’t going to inspire me to cook outdoors. I ultimately chose the Weber Spirit II in ivory because creamy off-white seemed strangely sophisticated for an outdoor appliance.

In practice, grilling meat over flames didn’t turn out to be the big, involved weekend project I had built up in my mind.

Choosing the right recipe to start with was the harder part. Initially, I tried to think of recipes adapted for indoor use that I could now make properly. First up was that pretty great oven-roasted chicken shawarma from the The New York Times. I could probably do a rotisserie-style chicken now! Not so fast. It turns out that was a little too advanced for a first grilling attempt. I quickly discovered that the easiest recipe for novices — and I still consider myself a beginner — involves simply char-grilling a slab of marinated steak for a few minutes to use in tacos, sliced carne asada-style, or to dress up with chiles, lime juice, and fish sauce for a Thai beef salad (just add fresh herbs and cherry tomatoes).

It turns out that everyone loves gas grills for a good reason — they make cooking quick and easy! I mean, I knew that on paper (that’s what all of those magazines claim, after all), but in practice grilling meat over flames didn’t turn out to be the big, involved weekend project I had built up in my mind. I enjoyed being able to fire up the grill on a weeknight and produce something edible in less than 30 minutes. (Cleanup is another story, though.)

One unexpected side effect of starting to grill (coupled with newfound downtime, thanks to the global pandemic) has been rediscovering my cookbook collection. My overflowing shelves had become more background noise than practical, but since I reluctantly paid a hefty sum to move those 500 or so books 2,500 miles, I decided I had better start cracking them open and getting to know them again. Online recipes are great, but sometimes you need an entire cookbook dedicated to regional cuisines for inspiration. What better time than now for deep dives?

After making steak, I started to tackle satay and yakitori. For the satay recipe I went down a rabbit hole, reading cookbooks with beautiful photography I picked up in Kuala Lumpur and Penang years ago, plus culinary gems geared toward an American audience like Cradle of Flavor by former Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland, and chef Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand. And even though I’ve been trying to keep my non-essential shopping to a minimum these days, I couldn’t resist buying Leela Punyaratabandhu’s recently released Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill: Classic Recipes for Seafood and Meats Cooked Over Charcoal.

This year, as we approach Memorial Day, I’ve been a little wary of going outside, due to the pandemic (even in my backyard; my neighbors make me a little nervous). I’ve already become accustomed — maybe too accustomed — to the social distancing lifestyle. I could hole up inside with my books (okay, and TV) for weeks, no problem. But browsing all of my cookbooks for inspiration and trying new grilling recipes might just be the things that change my mind and get me venture outside again.

I’m still not a summery person — I don’t enjoy weeding or mowing the lawn, and am slowly acclimating to needing a car for simple errands — but you’ll be happy to know I no longer take personal offense at grill-crazed magazine covers. And not just because there haven’t been any (yet) this year.