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Fire + meat = nirvana.
On this Memorial Day weekend, like many such weekends of the past, millions will follow that simple equation. Others will respond to a similar theme — perhaps veggies + fire = nirvana, or even fish + fire = nirvana.
Talk to a few people, and a fact quickly becomes clear: The fire's the important thing.
"There's probably some primal link to playing with fire," said Ken Nelson of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who competes, judges or helps organize and run about 15 professional barbecue contests a year. During the week, he works as a quality assurance technician for a software company.
As for the barbecue contests, Nelson says, "It's a hobby that requires a lot of rationalization."
'More Fun Than Doing It Inside'
Grilling and barbecuing fans say there's something about that combination of fire and the outdoors — something that says you're roughing it, even if you're actually cooking at an outdoor kitchen that has set you back four figures.
"It's just a lot easier and more fun than doing it inside," said Leslie Wheeler, director of communications for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, an industry group.
The barbecue industry shipped nearly 16.7 million grills and smokers in 2008, the association estimates. That was down from the approximately 17.4 million grills shipped in 2007, but the industry is "doing just fine" in a weaker economy, Wheeler said.
Memorial Day is associated in the minds of many with the beginning of grilling season for a simple reason, Nelson said: weather. In a chunk of the country, Memorial Day marks the time when the outdoor weather becomes consistently warm.
"If a man has hair on the back of his hand, it's probably winter," he said, noting one of the common side effects of regular grill use.
The Poke Test
There are levels of dedication to grilling and barbecuing. At the baseline are those who cook the occasional hamburger or hot dog. Convenience is part of this: There's little preparation, it doesn't take long to cook, you can feed a lot of kids in a hurry with a few packages of hot dogs, and the kids usually don't mind if you burn or drop a few.
Next come steaks. Everyone thinks he or she can cook a steak on a grill, and it's true if you think "cook" means "flamed until it is less like a filet mignon and more like a drink coaster."
Nelson, in mentioning that grilling outdoors involves the use of all senses, noted that the sense of touch comes in handy for cooking steaks.
The "poke test" — a method used by some professional chefs as well as backyard cookers — is one way to check for doneness. A rare steak feels squishy when poked with your index finger; a medium-well steak is firm.
Although grilling seems intractably associated with red meat, there are plenty of options for vegetarians or fish fans, too. Anyone who has grilled a cherry tomato, roasted an ear of corn, sampled eggplant slices brushed with olive oil and cooked over an open flame or even broiled a simple mushroom cap can testify to the joys of grilling vegetables. And a piece of wild salmon cooked on an alder plank with a little garlic and lemon? Fantastic.
Gas Or Charcoal?
That brings us to the grilling debate of our times: Gas or charcoal? Gas is more convenient. Charcoal is more primal.
Both methods have fans who claim their preferred method produces tastier food. "There is no winner, of course," Wheeler said.
As the dedication grows, some people move beyond the grill and on to smokers — the devices used to prepare big pieces of traditional barbecue, such as ribs or brisket. This. Is. Where. Things. Slow. Down.
Chris Allingham, for example, says he smokes hunks of meat for "the satisfaction of cooking something so tough and ornery for a really long time and having it turn out, on the other end, so tasty and succulent."
Allingham, a Web site designer from San Jose, Calif., runs The Virtual Weber Bullet, a fan site for owners of Weber Smokey Mountain cookers. There are similar sites for other smokers and fans, including The EggHeadForum and The Smoke Ring.
Meat Worth Sleeping Outside For
At Allingham's site, Saturday is Smoke Day V — the fifth annual day when members of his site fire up their smokers, cook their favorite dishes and then share comments and photos with each other on the site.
"We get at least 400 or 500 people who register for the event, and there's at least that many who don't register but participate anyway," he said.
That's a lot of dedication, but smoking takes dedication. In a smoker, an 8-pound pork shoulder might take 16 hours to become pulled pork, and that means starting a dinner fire in your backyard at 2 a.m. and perhaps sleeping in a folding chair next to the smoker.
It's also one way to learn new things about your neighbors, such as how they feel about the smell of smoky pork fat wafting into their yards at 6:30 a.m. But that primal urge will be satisfied.
Randy Lilleston is a supervising editor for NPR.org. He's smoking a brisket for Memorial Day weekend ... and some pastrami ... and perhaps a pork shoulder ... and he's grilling chicken in a mojo criollo marinade.