Grills! Grills! Grills! 

A guide to firing it up Memphis-style: funky and fascinating.

The archetypal river-buoy grill of eastern Arkansas

William Wunderlich

The archetypal river-buoy grill of eastern Arkansas

Please stop talking about your obnoxiously trendy barbecue grill. How many parties must you ruin prattling endlessly about cooking steaks at the surface temperature of the sun on a thousand-dollar grill?

A) Nobody cares.

B) We are here to help.

This is Memphis. We were famous for smoking and grilling way before you bought that thing and set upon your campaign of party-conversation destruction. Get a grill that you can be proud of, something everyone will want to hear about because it's like Memphis: funky and fascinating.

The source of this tirade is an old legend: a Sasquatch-like myth of a grill that is periodically seen around eastern Arkansas. Some say it washed out of the river — part river buoy, part kid-drawn military ordnance. They say it was cut up in a farm shop and set onto wheels. It became the grill/smoker of legend before it wandered west into the Delta never to be seen again.

This mythic river-buoy grill will set your mind free from the limitations of propane tanks, stainless steel, payment plans, and all of the other things that can make your barbecue taste like Nashville sounds: all wrong.

The first thing you should do is look into the grills sold at Kingsbury Career Technology Center on North Graham. James Everett has taught metal shop at Kingsbury for 15 years. He has two classes of 18 kids every day.

"We'll make them for anyone who would like them," Everett says. "We use the funds for materials and going to field trips and welding competitions.

"I'll have about five kids on a grill, depending on the size. We sell between five and eight per semester through word of mouth from students' parents and teachers.

"This one we also made," Everett says with a spark of pride. "The plumbers were taking two sinks out of that bathroom and they gave me these."

Then it dawns on me what I'm looking at: two school-size stainless-steel sinks (each a bulbous half-circle) stacked and hinged along the flat (wall) side and set on a stand with wheels. The grill has a striking symmetry and clean, utilitarian lines. You could see it being Steve Jobs' grill.

"They are stainless steel and hold the heat for a long time. We use it all the time on campus," Everett says.

"A lot of the kids leave here and go to Tennessee Tech for higher education and some of them just get jobs," Everett says before pausing to sort of heckle the premise of this article: "But I don't know that any of them go on to work making grills."

For information on Kingsbury grills, call 416-6000.

One exception to this no-jobs-in-grills travesty can be found at DJ's Welding. If you have not seen the sign where Tillman dead-ends into Summer, you are a defective Memphian. DJ's Welding brims with custom-made grills and the enthusiasm of owner Dwayne Johnson. They also sell tamales.

"I'm from this neighborhood," DJ says. He hopes to buy the corner building soon and to give something back to the kids he sees every day.

He is a second-generation metal worker and went to Tennessee Tech.

"My uncle Ezell Matthews was an artist. He worked at Pickle Ornamental Iron."

Johnson's enthusiasm for his work and his neighborhood runs over as we look at photos of a grill that he set into the body of a race car for a Memphis in May contestant. He points to a recent hire from Tennessee Tech.

"I'm focused on this neighborhood; on how to build it up and make it better. It's my way of giving back. So students will have something else to do and somewhere to go."

DJ's grills start at $60 for a personal size and run up to the 55-gallon model at $99.99. They also do custom work.

"Whatever you can come up with," Johnson says.

DJ's Welding, 2992 Summer (314-6029)

This leaves option three. You must be this cool to ride: Make your own grill.

Drumco, an "Earth minded company" on Tulane Road, will sell you a locally reconditioned barrel for under $25 and a brand-spanking new food-grade model for under $70.

Southern Steel Supply on North Dunlap has just about every part you would need. You can get a plasma cutter and welding kit at Northern Tool on Summer.

Soon, you will be the proud owner of a locally sourced artifact of your new, improved, hog-smoking, life-winning self. Of course, that means taking it out for a strut with some wheels and a trailer hitch. Go to and search for "homemade trailer." Our state government is all over this idea and has posted the requirements to hook up what you got and keep it off the impound lot.

Drumco, 3299 Tulane (396-6484)

Then there is the Olympiad of custom grillery. And where in the world might that take place? The National Ornamental Metal Museum. The museum's bi-annual Art Cooker event is where the masters of the art meet to show cookers/works of art and then hold a barbecue. Last year's Art Cooker show included the infamous We're Having a Tea Parody, J. Taylor Wallace's cooker shaped like an enormous Sarah Palin head. This and other designs boggle the mind and seal in the juices.

Noah Kirby, who teaches sculpture at Washington University in St. Louis, participated in the second Art Cooker and thinks custom cookers are an extension of the cooking and of the culture of food.

"This takes the grill away from pure function," Kirby says. "It makes a totem of it: a sacred site, a communal site. It's something interesting to stand around. Even if it's just sitting in the yard, it's a memory of that gathering."

Kirby smoked a turkey in a cannon and shot it out "like a pop gun" onto a platter at the second Art Cooker contest.

The next Art Cooker is set for May 2013.

Just roll that store-bought grill to the street and be done with it. Welcome to Memphis.

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