Boomers Endured Heat Waves

As Martha & the Vandellas so succinctly put it in 1963, we’re having a heat wave. It’s been unbelievably hot in a good portion of the country this week. In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, like many others, there has been yet another heat wave.

In earlier posts, Mister Boomer has mentioned how we boomers used to keep cool before air conditioning. There was another hot-weather family tradition of sorts in the Mister Boomer household that occurred around this time of the summer, that probably will resonate with many boomers. That is, once the temperature started rising for a few days in a row, Mister B’s mother would declare, “It’s too hot to cook.” And that was that. She had the first and last word on the subject, so the stove was off-limits. She couldn’t stand the heat, so she was staying out of the kitchen.

That was the cue for Mister Boomer and his brother to bring up the grill from the basement — where it was kept in its original cardboard box — for a rare midweek cookout. The grill was a round pan that sat on a tripod of metal legs that slid into metal sleeves welded to the bottom. Once assembled in the yard, the boys would make a pyramid of charcoal briquettes and Mister B would douse them with lighter fluid. Brother Boomer, being the elder, was the one to yield the matches. In this case, he flicked wooden kitchen matches into the briquettes. After a satisfying woosh and burst of flames, the boys’ job was complete and they could turn over the cooking duties to their father.

These “too hot to cook” cookouts meant that dinner was going to consist of whatever was on hand in the refrigerator, and that usually meant hamburgers and hot dogs. Most boomer households bought ground beef on a regular basis, and kept a package of hot dogs for the kids, too. Mister Boomer’s sister preferred her hot dogs like she ate her bologna — plain and charred, no bun, bread or condiments. Mister Boomer and his brother generally opted for hamburgers. In their yard, a hamburger on a grill was not gussied up with additional ingredients; there was rarely even a slice of cheese melted on top. Rather, the burger was lifted from the grill to a waiting bun — which was usually pulled straight from the package and not toasted on the grill — after which, mustard or ketchup was added by the recipient. Brother boomer liked mustard, but Mister B was a ketchup man. Occasionally he would retrieve the jar of pickle relish from the refrigerator door and add a teaspoon of the stuff to his burger.

There were no vegetables invited to the party, not even lettuce and tomato for the burgers; it would be a decade before Mister B’s family got that fancy. Instead, a handful of potato chips rounded out the dinner on their paper plates. After all, if it was too hot to cook, Mister B’s mom sure as hell wasn’t going to be washing dishes, either.

In the spirit of Mister B’s mom and her “it’s too hot to cook” declarations, Mister B presents this smattering of classic Mister Boomer posts about how we beat the heat:

Keeping Our Collective Cool
In an age when not many boomer households had air conditioning, people had their ways of keeping cool.

Boomers’ Cars Breezed Along … Without Air Conditioning
Mister B recalls the era of car air conditioning known as “460”; that was, four windows down at 60 miles per hour.

Boomers Grabbed a Cold One
Long before boomers were old enough to use “grab a cold one” to mean a beer, they drank a series of cold beverages that helped shape their attack on the heat.

How did you keep cool, boomers? Did your boomer youth training help you keep cool during this recent round of heat waves?

Boomers Went Fourth and Grilled

Another Fourth of July weekend is upon us, and Mister Boomer is reminded that outdoor grilling was massively popular during his early boomer days. As it turns out, the parents of the Boomer Generation were instrumental in the development and promotion of outdoor grilling as we know it today.

Most people use the terms “barbecuing” and “grilling” interchangeably but there is, and always has been, a distinction between the two. This is important to note because as we explore the founding days of our country, “barbecuing” was a popular activity for political campaigns, especially around the Fourth of July. George Washington is said to have loved them, not only for the food but for the chance to meet and greet. Washington, however, did not use the opportunity as the chance to give a speech — he wanted the food and camaraderie to work the room for him. A traditional barbecue cookout for the Founding Fathers was the slow roasting of whole pigs or hogs over an open flame. The affair lasted all day and into the night, and the food was paired with copious amounts of beer and hard liquor. Therein lies the difference between barbecuing and grilling: a barbecue method was a slow roast over lower temperatures, while grilling tends to be quicker and over hot flames.

Outdoor roasting and grilling, of course, did not start in the U.S. In fact, the practice goes back as far as the harnessing of fire itself. Yet its use and popularity skyrocketed in the U.S. after the second World War. One influence the War had on newly-minted Boomer parents was that some servicemen, on returning home, brought Japanese ceramic kamado cookers back with them. These traditional cooking devices smoked or grilled meats, fish or vegetables to the delight of American servicemen. However, the thing most associated with the advancement of the backyard cookout during the boomer years was the move to the suburbs. Houses with backyards provided all the space needed for successful outings with family and friends. The social element that our Founding Fathers found so appealing was felt in boomer neighborhoods from coast to coast. A backyard brazier — a flat device with a bed for fuel and a metal grill over it — was as important a fixture as the car in the driveway. And, in Mister Boomer’s experience, the tradition of combining the cookout with large quantities of adult beverages was one his parents and neighbors felt obliged to keep.

Charcoal and wood were the fuel of choice after the War. The charcoal briquette had been patented by one Ellsworth Zwoyer in 1897, but Henry Ford is often erroneously given the credit. Ford got into the briquette business when he founded the Kingsford Charcoal Company in 1921 as a way to monetize the wood scraps and used sawdust that covered his factory floors. By the early 1950s, Kingsford increased production of charcoal briquettes by 35 percent to meet the increased demand. The company did not advertise for fear that they would not be able to make enough to meet the needs of the marketplace.

In a “which came first” debate, several technological advances in cookery either spurred the dawn of suburban boomer cookouts, or at the very least increased its popularity. For most American suburbanites, outdoor cooking was done on a brazier grill. Having no vents to control the flames, it was known for uneven heat that tended to char food quickly and spew ashes over the cook and guests, especially when a prevailing breeze visited the backyard event. That began to change in 1952, when a man named George Stephen, a welder for the Weber Brothers Metal Spinning Company, cut a metal buoy in half and created a new kind of grill. The top half was used as a lid. In both the lid and base, Stephen fashioned controllable vents. For the first time, cooking temperature was not an either/or situation. The grill quickly spread across the nation, though Mister Boomer’s father didn’t buy his first Weber grill until the early 1970s.

Experimentation in gas grills also continued through the ’50s. The first practical propane gas grills had been introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair. However, gas grilling remained the exclusive domain of commercial cooking until the 1950s. By the mid-fifties, home models were introduced by a variety of companies. The adoption of the gas grill was slow at first due to the price of the early models — they could be priced from $50 to more than $100 — which was approximately double that of a week’s pay for the average American. Ease of use eventually won out and by the late 1970s, the gas grill supplanted charcoal grills as the most popular in the backyards of boomer parents, at the same time that the first boomers were establishing families of their own.

As for the legacy of the Japanese kamado grill, fast forward to 1974 when a Navy vet named Ed Fisher opened the Big Green Egg Company. Ed’s combination grill and smoker was based on traditional Japanese designs. Thirty years after the War, its influence was still being felt in boomer backyards. The company continues operations today, gaining a following in barbecue purist circles. In fact, most if not all of the brands that were household names to boomers are still around, including Kingsford, Lodge, Charmglow, Weber, and others.

Mister Boomer thoroughly enjoyed his neighborhood’s backyard cookouts. However, he was never enamored with the common kid fare of hot dogs and hamburgers, much preferring ribs and chicken, and the occasional steak on the grill. He especially liked grilled corn on the cob. For years, even though his father was grilling, his mother had a pot on the stove in the kitchen boiling corn for the meal. Finally, around the mid-60s, his father and brother convinced his mother that corn could be great on the grill. Then began the endless debates over whether the corn would go directly on the grill, husk and all, soaked beforehand or not, or grill the ears sans husks. One way steamed the corn instead of grilling, while the other dried it out and could make it tough. A happy medium was never reached, but Mister B ate it all, along with baked potatoes. Since the grown-ups were busy downing their adult beverages, it also gave the kids an opportunity to drink cold cans of soda pop all day long — a real treat that did not happen often.

By the time sun was going down, the remaining bits of charcoal glowed a beautiful orange-red in the twilight, beckoning boomer kids to roast marshmallows. Then, sparklers were in order as kids pranced around creating light trails of various shapes. Older kids might have some fireworks, and sometimes an adult — often still gripping a long-neck bottle of beer — held out a Roman Candle to shoot colorful sparks into the sky.

What memories of backyard Fourth of July cookouts do you have, boomers?