Articles / How I (kind of) invented the gas grill and forgot to become a billionaire

How I (kind of) invented the gas grill and forgot to become a billionaire

Published October 8, 2018

Hi, and thanks so much for joining me. This is newsletter #1 (of many). Hope you enjoy it. Send feedback anytime (really). Now on to today’s story…

I became a cook by accident; my mother didn’t show much interest in teaching me, nor I much interest in learning. There are many other things to say about this, my pre-cooking life, and at some point I’ll say them. For now…

In 1968, when I was a sophomore at Clark University, in Worcester (pronounced Wistah), Mass., I moved into an apartment on the corner of King and Queen Streets (really), in part because I didn’t want to be at college in the first place and in part because I was living on Coke and ice cream and cheeseburgers (yes, there was pot) and I knew enough (my mom did teach me something, after all, and I grew up in NYC, after all) to recognize that going shopping for whatever primitive ingredients I could prepare for myself would be a step up.

My roommate Joel was a junior from northern Westchester. Many weekends, and I have no idea how this came about, Joel commuted home in his ’56 Ford, and I often went with him. (Thus I learned how to drive on that “three on the tree” car.) Back in Armonk, or Pleasantville, or wherever it was, Joel worked in a restaurant as a short-order cook. It’s irrelevant but perhaps interesting that I watched Lyndon Johnson announce his non-candidacy with Joel’s family, and became enamored both of the surprisingly rural areas just north of NYC, where I now live, and of Joel’s sister, with whom (like Joel) I’ve fallen out of touch.

Anyway. I’ll stop. We, or one of us, got the notion that we could “grill”(1) by taking the grate out of the oven, putting it over the burners on top of the stove, and letting it rip. Mostly this meant cheeseburgers and steaks, but compared to the food in the dining halls it was haute cuisine.

And that’s how Joel and I kind of invented the gas grill which, really, did not exist at the time(2). We forgot to patent it and become billionaires, but we did trash the stove (and lost our security deposit, justifiably). And we learned something about grilling, although details are foggy both because of the passage of time and bad memory. (Oh, and pot.)

I’m hoping that my newsletter is the equivalent of turning your stove into a gas grill: It seems like fun, it’ll be an awesome experiment regardless, and it will, we hope, result in something both odd and delicious. (Maybe it won’t physically trash anything, which would also be good.) It’ll start with recipes, then, based mostly on your feedback (really, tell me what you want), will grow, I hope, to include rants, food news, op-eds, guest columns, more like the above meandering, action items, and things I can’t name but I’m sure will develop, all delivered straight to your inbox three days a week.

Maybe we’ll destroy the stove in the process, but we’ll have a hell of a time doing it. (When I say “we,” I’m including, for now, my long-time collaborator Daniel Meyer and my long-time daughter Kate Bittman. There will be others if this flies.)

In the meantime (in honor of the “grilled” burgers that Joel and I “invented,” and because it still feels a little like summer, at least where I live), here’s my go-to green chile cheeseburger recipe from my newest book, How to Grill Everything. Alas, it was designed for (and tested on) a real grill, so if you can help it, please refrain from cooking it on a grate on top of your stove.

— Mark

(1) As a city boy, grilling was among the most exciting concepts in the universe, like surfing or making out in cars.
(2) Needless to say, this was also before smoke detectors.

Photo: Christina Holmes