Summer, Brought to You By is our series about all the stuff that’s become part of the culture and of the economy. Where did they come from and who thought of them?
July Fourth is the biggest grilling day of the year. About 66 percent of Americans plan to celebrate Independence Day with a cookout, barbecue or picnic according to an annual survey from the National Retail Federation. But grilling was not always as ubiquitous in American culture as it is today. Back in the 1970s, the Weber-Stephen company helped popularize backyard barbecuing with store demonstrations, pamphlets, cookbooks and classes.
Mike Kempster, who now refers to himself as Weber's "brand godfather" was behind many of those efforts to educate the public about grilling. He started out as one of Weber’s store demonstrators back in 1971 and later served as chief marketing officer. A few of Mike’s stories from the early days of Weber are featured in a new recipe book called “Weber’s Greatest Hits: 125 Recipes for Every Grill and Everyone.”
For the latest installment in our seasonal series “Summer Brought to You By,” Kempster talked with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal about the history of the Weber Grills. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: Tell me how you wound up at Weber, lo these many years ago.
Michael Kempster: I was working for a retailer in the Chicago area named Montgomery Ward at the time and there was a gentleman that was looking at a tractor. And well, you get a man on a tractor and it's half sold. So, we brought a tractor out [to his house], cut a few swaths of grass and then, as I was closing the sale, I looked up and there were a lot of Weber grills on this man's balcony. And I said, "My goodness, you must be a real professional barbecuer." And he said, “I own Weber Grill Co.” Turned out his name was George Stephen. I had never made the connection before, but Weber Stephen Co. is the official name of the company.
Ryssdal: And it originally was Mr. Stephen who — what did he do? Didn’t he cut some like metal buoys in half is that the deal?
Kempster: Yes, he worked at a company, located not too far from here, on Illinois Street called Weber Brothers Metal Work, and they were spinning shapes that would be welded together to form a buoy for the Chicago Yacht Club. So, he got the idea that maybe he could put some legs on this thing, and maybe it would work a lot better than the grills in those days if it had a lid so the wind wouldn't blow ashes around and so forth. Well, as the story goes, he took it home to his suburban home in Mount Prospect, Illinois. And then he and a neighbor lit it and tried to use it, and it didn't work. And another neighbor said, “Hey guys, you ought to knock some holes in the top and bottom of that thing and let some air in.” So they did, and the Weber barbecue was fired up for the first time, and well, it's been going ever since. That was in 1952.
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Ryssdal: And here's the deal though. I mean grilling is ubiquitous now, right? I mean, it's everywhere, and it's hard to imagine a time when this market was new. You know what I mean.
Kempster: Oh yeah, I understand that. Because when I first joined the company in 1971, barbecuing was a pretty amateurish thing. In those days, you had just open braisers and it was pretty primitive. So, it's hard to imagine that now, but it's taken a long time to, you know, build up a barbecue culture around the world.
Ryssdal: You have traveled the world, I imagine, as a brand ambassador for Weber. What's your craziest international grill story?
Kempster: Oh, I guess the craziest one would have would to be when I was in Cape Town, South Africa. I was demonstrating Weber grills on a Saturday. A gentleman came up, and we were talking about barbecuing, and he said, “So this 22 1/2 inch kettle, will it roast a leg of a warthog?" And you know, I had limited knowledge in terms of the animals in South Africa, and when he said “warthog” I thought “hedgehog.” I was thinking, hedgehogs aren't that big, who would ever want to roast leg of hedgehog? But well, I had to consult with a woman in South Africa that was a cookbook author, and she assured me that a roasted leg of a warthog is pretty darned good. And so, we included a recipe in our first South African cookbook.
Text excerpted from Weber's Greatest Hits © 2017 by Jamie Purviance. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Jerk-spiced ribs with pineapple-rum salsa
Not all racks of baby back ribs are the same, so how you cook them should also not be the same. If one rack is getting too dark, move it farther from the fire. If a rack looks dry, spray or baste it with water. The same idea holds true for when the racks are done. Just because one rack is ready to come off the grill doesn’t mean the other is too. Always give each rack the attention it needs.
Prep time 20 Minutes • Marinating time 3 to 4 hours • Grilling time 2½ to 4 hours
Serves 4 to 6
½ cup roughly chopped white onion
6 garlic cloves, chopped
3 scallions (white and green parts), roughly chopped
1 or 2 serrano chili peppers, seeded
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme
¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 racks baby back ribs, each 2 to 2¼ pounds
Pineapple-Rum Salsa (See below)
1. In a food processor, combine all the paste ingredients and process until fairly smooth. Using a dull dinner knife, slide the tip under the membrane covering the back of each rack of ribs. Lift and loosen the membrane until it breaks, then grab a corner of it with a paper towel and pull it off. Spread the paste evenly all over the racks. Cover and refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours, turning occasionally. Let the racks stand at room temperature for 45 minutes before grilling.
2. Prepare the grill for indirect cooking over low heat (250° to 350°F).
3. Brush the cooking grates clean. Grill the racks, bone side down first, over indirect low heat, with the lid closed, for 2½ to 3 hours, turning the racks over, rotating them, and switching their positions about every 40 minutes so both sides of each rack spend the same amount of time closest to the heat. Also, baste them occasionally with water to keep the surface moist. The racks are done when the meat has shrunk back from the ends of most of the bones by ¼ inch or more. To test if the racks are done, one at a time, lift them, bone side up, at one end with tongs; if a rack bends so much in the middle that the meat tears easily, it is ready. If the meat does not tear easily, continue to cook until it does, up to 1 hour more. When the racks are ready, transfer them to a platter and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Cut each rack in half or into individual ribs and serve warm with the salsa.
Makes enough for 4 to 6 servings
2 cups (about 12 ounces) finely diced fresh pineapple
¼ cup finely diced red bell pepper
¼ cup finely diced white onion
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ to 1 teaspoon hot-pepper sauce, or to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon dark or spiced rum
In a medium nonreactive bowl combine the pineapple, bell pepper, onion, cilantro, salt, and hot sauce and mix well. Cover and refrigerate. Just before serving, stir in the lime juice and rum. (The salsa can be made up to 1 day ahead.)