THIS summer, millions of Americans are grappling with one of the most vexing dilemmas of modern civilization: Gas or charcoal?
The boom in backyard barbecuing has ignited grill sales and provided a '90s yardstick - or at least shish-kebab stick - as to the kind of person you are.
Charcoal buyers fancy themselves as purists: Meat cooked on a gas grill lacks authentic barbecue flavor, they say. But gas owners are productivity mavens who argue that a bucket of briquets takes far too long to heat up.
Either way, the barbecue phenomena is interpreted by some as a positive sign that Americans are more interested in spending time with their families and neighbors.
The barbecue trend seems to make just about everybody happy, save vegetarians. Hardware stores are stocking up on grills and all the accessories: horsehair basting brushes, stainless-steel tongs, no-drip spatulas, and a wide selection of wacky aprons.
Tony White sells barbecues at Acme Grills in suburban Maryland. He says he sells about the same number of each type, but gas grills have been gaining fast.
Gas-grill owners are usually tired of replacing their rusted-out charcoal grills every few years, he says, while charcoal buyers tend to be first-time barbecuers or traditionalists who love the smoky taste only briquets can bring.
What does Mr. White prefer? ''They both have advantages,'' he says. ''To tell you the truth, I try to stay out of it.''
In a 1993 study by the Illinois-based Barbecue Industry Association (BIA), researchers found that 74 percent of US households own barbecues, and they light 2.6 billion fires every year. Americans bought 11.2 million grills in 1993, the study says, 52 percent of which were gas. Sales of charcoal set a record of 809,000 tons in 1993.
So who's winning the barbecue war? According to BIA spokeswoman Donna Myers, it's a draw. The average barbecuing family owns 1.4 grills, she says: a fact that suggests that most families own a gas grill for weekday cooking and a charcoal grill for weekends.
Ms. Myers also says barbecuing is slowly becoming a woman's domain, too. BIA surveys show women are more likely to decide when to barbecue and what to cook; men are still more likely to buy the grill and flip the burgers.
''The most important thing about barbecuing is that it's a family activity,'' Myers says. ''It also reflects a more casual lifestyle. When you have a barbecue party, you put away the white linens. It's more informal.''
Tom Koziol, president of American Home products, which makes top-of-the-line gas grills, is the closest thing to barbecue royalty: In 1961, his father and uncle manufactured the first commercial gas grill, the Charmglow.
Carolyn Wells, co-founder of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, is a serious barbecuer.
A true barbecue, she says is not gassed or charcoaled, but smoked ''slow and low,'' for as long as 24 hours over indirect heat.
Ms. Wells is in the thick of a burgeoning barbecue subculture, which hosts hundreds of cookouts every year, from ''Pig War III'' in Friday Harbour, W.Va., to the ''Doo-Dat BBQ Festival'' in Nacogdoches, Texas.
Already, she says, barbecuing has a society, two trade associations, a convention and trade show, seven competition circuits, two newspapers, and eight newsletters.
''The return to barbecue is a return to roots,'' Wells says. ''We've tried all the ethnic cuisines, and Cajun is tired. It's time to go back to basic American cuisine, to go outside and be with family. You just can't say this about spaghetti.''