the barbecue belt

We sift through the charcoal embers for clues to how three little spots in Montgomery County turned into grilling meccas.

July 28, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Just about every region in the United States can claim bragging rights for some gustatory accomplishment, however dubious.

New Orleans, for example, boasts the highest percentage of obese people -- 38 percent -- in the country. And Nevada has the highest per capita beer consumption -- 48.8 gallons a year -- of any state.

Now, a triumvirate of suburban communities in upper Montgomery County can stake its own trivia surf 'n turf as the barbecue epicenter of the United States.

In improbable David vs. Goliath fashion, Brinklow, Sandy Spring and Ashton broke on to a top-10 list of ZIP codes with the most purchases of outdoor grills per household. The three specks on the map held their own against monsters Los Angeles and Atlanta, as well as other little-known backwaters like Verbank, N.Y., and Neosho Rapids, Kan.

The list, which appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal, came from CACI International Inc., an Arlington, Va., firm that crunches demographic studies and surveys into equations, ratios and statistics to provide "purchase potential data" for a product or service in a particular region.

But how to explain this anomalous, albeit theoretical flare-up of grilling activity? Factoring in the notion of percentages, it may not seem strange that tiny Brinklow came in third on the list, behind L.A. and Bingham Lake, Minn. What is strange is that not one, but three adjacent Maryland ZIP codes appeared on the list.

What is it about this region, just west of the Howard County line, where mansions are carved out of cow pastures and pickup trucks driven by men in suspenders take melons and corn to market?

Where there's smoke there's excess marinade. The Sun had no choice but to investigate, while keeping in mind that the CACI research actually gauges purchase potential, not reality. What to look for, when looking for potential, something that is not always readily discernible? Maybe all those inscrutable subdivisions and gated communities would divulge nothing. Or maybe it would be as simple as the sight of untold naked decks awaiting untold gas grills.

The first step was to penetrate the community. Jay Zuspan, a captain in the Sandy Spring volunteer fire department, took the inquiry in stride. Yes, he and his colleagues occasionally answer a call for a gas grill on fire. Then again, "I thought they were supposed to be on fire."

`Blowing smoke'

Zuspan handed the phone to Joseph J. Villella Sr., a master firefighter who moved to rural Montgomery County as a kid in 1950. "How in the world could they find a statistic like that?" Villella asked. "Someone's blowing smoke."

But the numbers made some sense, he realized. "In the whole Olney, Sandy Spring, Ashton, Brinklow area, there is a lot of development going on," Villella said. "There are some really large houses being built, and moderate houses being built in the $375,000 range -- if you know what I mean."

With all those fancy decks and patios, "the potential's here," Villella said.

He, himself, has a gas grill, handy for power outages. And, of course, "every firehouse has a grill. God, we cook all our meals here."

The firefighters referred us to their friends at Ashton Paint and Hardware. There, it turned out, was the holy grail of grills.

Outside the bustling family-owned hardware store, nestled in a cozy shopping center, sits a platoon of Weber grills, both streamlined models from the company's LX Series to lowly kettles.

Inside, an entire section is devoted to barbecue accessories: smoking herbs, fancy spatulas, wood chips, lava rocks, aprons, barbecue baskets, something called "Flavorizer."

What is up with all these grills, employee Paul Rognlie was asked. "It's not so much keeping up with the Joneses as it is, `I have a deck and I want a good grill,' " Rognlie explains. And then, "the neighbor gets one, too."

Tracked his sales

Enter Tom Christopher, the hardware store's owner. He's been selling Webers for 12 years, at this store and at his Bethesda outlet. Christopher once kept a map dotted with pushpins for the location of every grill sold. It was a very crowded map. Last year, he sold 120 gas grills from the Ashton store ranging in price from $369 to $2,500. They don't bother to keep track of kettles.

Christopher, an avid year-round griller himself, said on summer evenings his neighborhood is often thick with the fragrance of barbecue smoke. And a trash collection never goes by without his noticing a cardboard grill box by the side of the road. When it's from Sears or Home Depot, he winces slightly, but life goes on in Grillville.

Christopher's store takes on the air of a village center when he and customers get to discussing the merits of dry and wet rubs, marinades, direct and indirect heat, slow and fast cooking.

The other day, one of the "old-time guys from Sandy Spring told me how his grandfather cooked ribs and I told him about my recipe for blackened pork roast," said Christopher, while his young son Joseph priced paintbrushes.

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