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U.S. BARBECUERS LIGHT FIRE UNDER GAS-GRILL SALES.

Byline: Sam Howe Verhovek The New York Times

As a milestone in American demographics, it may not rank up there with the westward migration or the baby boom. But with the onset of Memorial Day, the traditional kickoff of the barbecue season, it's worth pondering the Great Grill Conversion.

Last year, for the first time in the nation's history, Americans bought more gas grills (5.8 million) than charcoal grills (5.3 million), according to the Barbecue Industry Association, a trade group based in Naperville, Ill.

And because people with gas grills use them more often, grillings with gas now account for a majority of the country's 2.7 billion outdoor ``barbecue events'' annually.

Surveys have repeatedly suggested that the overwhelming reason for all this cooking with gas is convenience. The experts - people who sell grills for a living - certainly concur.

``What appeals to people is not having to wait,'' says Farrell Benson, the lawn and garden manager at Bering's Hardware in Houston. ``You've got a lot of families where the husband and wife both work. They get home, they want to light that fire.''

Still, even when people have time to sit around and smell the coals, they often hit the gas switch instead.

Why? Probably the most controversial theory is that while men historically have been society's hunters and fire-setters, barbecuing is becoming an androgynous activity.

A recent survey of 1,000 American families by the barbecue association indicates that in 41 percent of households with a man and woman in them, the woman is the primary barbecuer.

(Females also exert their influence over ``barbecue events'' in other ways: In 57 percent of families, they call the shots on whether to barbecue at all and in 69 percent, they say what to throw on the grill.)

So, what does that have to do with the gas craze? A completely random sample of women at Bering's and a nearby Home Depot store, where the ``grills'' section is crammed with smokers, braziers, LP gas barbecues, Bar-B-Kettles and hibachis, not to mention Ortho Bug-Geta slug poison, suggests that many women are less than thrilled with the coal and lighter fluid routine.

The androgyny theory could, of course, be total buncombe. John P. Robinson, a University of Maryland sociology professor and director of the 31-year-old Americans' Use of Time Project, said the rise in gas-grill sales is evidence of the public's love of time-savers that really don't save time: ``Take dishwashers. If you really study it, a lot of people basically wash the dishes before they put them in the dishwasher.''

And environmental considerations could be involved. Gas and electric grill manufacturers insist their grills burn cleaner - a selling point that charcoal grill and briquette companies contest with a fury worthy of the disposable-diaper lobby.

Whatever the reasons, charcoal grills may be going the way of the Model T, sparking lament. ``There's just a world of difference,'' said Jim Goode, the head of Goode Co. Texas Barbeque, a Houston institution. ``Gas doesn't impart any taste at all. It's just about as easy to start a charcoal fire, and it tastes a whole lot better.''

And Ken Bosley, proprietor of the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, Ky., said the cooks at the town's annual International Bar-B-Q Festival ``would laugh at you if you tried to tell them they had to cook with gas.'' He said, ``Our barbecue ethic here will always be: over the wood.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:May 26, 1996
Words:572
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