A fascinating emblem of the ’90s, it inspires a complicated nostalgia
I remember a few faddish kitchen appliances from my mom’s apartment. A juicer somewhere in the upper cupboards, its presence signaled by the lone juicing cookbook on the kitchen counter. A waffle iron that pressed an image of Snoopy into your breakfast, and seemingly existed only to get tangled with the other pans. A popcorn machine that came out for the occasional sleepover, ultimately “lost” in a move. But there was one that remained, a weekly workhorse that to my young mind, no household should have been without. This is all to say I really miss my George Foreman Grill.
The George Foreman Grill was a fascinating phenomenon of the ’90s. Unlike with the microwave or blender, there was no brand comparison to be done, no generic version. Sure, 36 percent of households may now have an air fryer, made by Cuisinart or Ninja or Cosori. But in a 2000 interview, Gary Ragan, a spokesman for the company that manufactured the grill, estimated that between 12 and 15 percent of all American households had the George Foreman Grill that year. It’s such a notable contribution to American food culture that there’s one stored in the Smithsonian.
The grill — its full name was the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine — was actually the idea of the inventor Michael Boehm, who just wanted to make an indoor grill that cooked both sides of something at once. He was surprised “nobody” had thought of this before, though presumably this means he had never encountered a panini press. But the grill also had a slope of 20 degrees. According to Leon Dreimann, then CEO of Salton, which would purchase the patent to the grill, the slope was originally intended to allow home cooks to scrape fajita fillings directly into a tortilla. It seems that the marketing team figured out the fat-sliding part pretty quickly, though. Once they did, the grill became an emblem of celebrity endorsement, ’90s diet culture, and the power of television at a time just before the internet became widely available.
But for me, an only child of divorce, it was the first half-step into the world of cooking for myself.
I was around 12 or 13 when I started using our grill. While the ads that featured Foreman, a boxer fresh off his second comeback (and who was reportedly taking in 45 percent of the machine’s profits) grilling fish in a home kitchen, promising to “knock out” the fat, didn’t make much of an impression on me, I do remember the one that made the grill look like an iMac. By the time that ad came out, the grill had proven to be a hit with college students, an easy, dorm-safe device that didn’t require walking down the hall to the communal kitchen. Ours was purple, which I thought was cool.
At the time I was a bad cook. I have a memory of trying to make whole wheat “pasta primavera” and burning the garlic so thoroughly I couldn’t stomach it. My divorced parents both worked, sometimes late hours, meaning I might be home alone until bedtime. On those nights there were usually frozen lasagnas or burritos in the fridge, or leftovers, or money for takeout.
At some point I realized the George Foreman Grill was a step above the microwave, with just enough “cooking” required to make me feel like a sophisticated adult swanning around the kitchen. I made grilled cheese, chicken breasts, quesadillas, and burgers both beef and Boca. The food was hot and had sexy grill marks like, I hate to say it, the food on TV. It was also pretty foolproof. Oil didn’t start smoking if I left it on for slightly too long, and there was no risk of burning my mom’s pans.
But mostly, cooking with the Foreman Grill proved to me that it was indeed possible to cook food that had a little bit of complexity and tasted good. It was proof I could sustain myself without my parents, that I could not just reheat or order in but make a meal, even if it was as rudimentary as a burger with ketchup eaten between regular slices of bread because we didn’t have buns. It was a taste of independence, and as I watched the fat pool into the proprietary tray I felt like I could have my dinners and eat them, too.
As others have noted, the ’90s and early 2000s were a nightmare time to have a body that required food to operate. I still remember the day I learned how many calories were in a bagel and cream cheese, or when I heard that Britney Spears did a thousand crunches a day. While being able to make a hot dog in your dorm room was certainly an appealing perk, the major selling point of the George Foreman Grill was the “fat-reducing” part (something advertisers occasionally drove home by stylizing those words to look like a cinched waist). It felt so easy for that to be the priority when I was thinking about eating.
The visual of the fat pouring into the tray always got a slightly pornographic treatment in the commercials. This ad from 1999 shows one model in a sun-filled kitchen swapping out a tray filled with golden grease for a new one, there to catch even more (though the ad notes the George Foreman Grill reduces just “4% more fat than pan-frying”). This infomercial emphasizes how “grooves channel fat away,” with Foreman repeating his tagline about how they have to “knock the fat out.” The subtext was look at what’s not in your body right now, watch it congeal and think about how clean you are for it.
The image of the dripping tray stuck with me, becoming inextricable from my overall impression of cooking. The message of the George Foreman Grill was that good cooking could be done by anyone, and that good cooking meant food drained of fat. And I don’t know how to square that with the fact that the George Foreman Grill empowered me to see what else I could do around the kitchen, both with the grill and outside of it.
Soon after I began using the grill, the whole idea of cooking began to feel much less terrifying. I added more ingredients than just cheese into my grilled sandwiches. I made pastas a touch more inventive than just dumping jarred sauce onto them. I helped my mom with baking projects. I realize I can’t remember if I even took the George Foreman Grill with me to college, so if I did I must not have used it much. Instead, armed with Walmart cookware sets and a Whole Foods a 10-minute drive away, my friends and I experimented in new ways.
Nostalgia is a hollow feeling. As Helena Fitzgerald wrote of society’s collective desire to return to the world as it existed in 2019, nostalgia is really the wish to unlearn what we now know, whether that’s how microdroplets spread through the air or what a tray of drained beef fat looks like. I miss the George Foreman Grill, and yet I have never desired to purchase one as an adult. Because when I say I miss my George Foreman Grill, I’m really saying I miss when cooking was a discovery. I miss when making grilled cheese felt like a feat. I miss not understanding what a number the diet industry was doing to my brain. And okay, I do miss making a burger that I don’t even have to flip. Truly, what an innovation.