Walk around a suburban neighborhood on pleasant summer evenings and you're likely to catch the tantalizing aroma of dinner in the air. On patios and decks it's barbecue season, a time when backyard chefs grab oversized tongs to preside over al fresco cooking on charcoal and gas grills.
But this summer, in certain tony neighborhoods, steaks are sizzling on the fanciest equipment ever. "Advanced grilling systems," complete with "ergonomic features," offer the latest status symbol - "a commercial-quality kitchen in your backyard." One 48-inch gas grill cart with a rotisserie and two range-top burners costs a whopping $4,995. Then again, it holds 50 hamburgers or filet mignons.
Call these the newest toys for grown-up boys, and consider them the latest example of the upscaling of America. A seasonal ritual that began in the 1950s with humble hibachis and rough-hewn barbecue pits has evolved into a sophisticated and competitive routine.
One brochure labels this equipment "performance grilling" and describes it as "so versatile and well equipped that you'll want to do all your cooking outdoors." All of it? Tell that to a Minnesotan in January who must brush snow off the deck before he can broil the kabobs.
But $4,995 is only the beginning. As any consumer knows, no possession is an island, complete unto itself. One purchase inevitably spawns a need for accessories. In the case of upscale grills, the additions can be pricey. Owners might want a serving cart ($1,395), a five-piece tool set ($54), patio torch lights ($69.95), and a stainless steel patio heater ($995).
And don't forget maintenance and storage, although anyone who can shell out $5,000 to cook hamburgers can presumably afford a house with a three-car garage to store it in during winter.
Two contradictory messages float through the late-1990s air. One, delivered quietly and with appealing logic, comes from leaders of what is called the simplicity movement, who preach a practical sermon: "Simplify, simplify." The other message, the hallmark of a consumer culture, comes from merchants who chant insistently, "Buy. Accumulate. Complicate."
These conflicting commands also stand at the heart of another funny and related contradiction - the disparity between fantasy and reality. Adventure tales currently rank as one of the hottest categories in publishing. Americans are eagerly devouring stories about brave souls who scale hostile mountains and sail tempestuous seas. It's man - and woman- against the elements, the more white-knuckle the adventure, the better.
In theory, readers love the idea of roughing it, carting a little collapsible stove and a small tent in their backpack as they hike the Appalachian Trail, emulating Bill Bryson in "A Walk in the Woods." Or they imagine cooking in a tiny galley and sleeping in a swaying hammock on a 36-foot sailboat as they wend their way across the Pacific, following in the wake of Gordon Chaplin, author of "Dark Wind: A Survivor's Tale of Love and Loss."
But in practice, most of us still prefer to read about someone else's daring adventures from the comfort and safety of our own chaise longue on the patio, preferably next to a gleaming grill, a sparkling pool, and a pitcher of lemonade.
Truth be told, we prefer our rugged individualism with creature comforts attached. The merchants peddling expensive possessions and pampered living are winning out over the idealists urging simplicity and the authors recounting brave adventures.
What will the next status symbol be? Somewhere, clever marketers may already be at work designing a state-of-the-art outdoor bedroom to set up next to the "outdoor commercial kitchen." Imagine a huge air-conditioned tent, complete with king-size bed, entertainment center, Jacuzzi, and a big stack of adventure tales on the nightstand. It's a perfect way to relax after that strenuous stint at the grill.