I considered myself a backyard warrior when standing over a fine steak or juicy burger sizzling atop hot coals. I would wear out grills every two years, then fetch a new one from a big-box store. But when I wanted to improve my grilling game in 2014, I strutted into an outdoor store to admire finer cookers.
When my wife, Laura, and I walked out hours later, I didn't know I had just joined a worldwide cult of Eggheads — outdoor cooks who worship the egg-shaped grill-smokers called Big Green Eggs.
The ceramic cookers use lump charcoal, not briquettes, and can smoke and grill any kind of meat. They can even bake pizzas, pies and cookies. Unlike steel smokers, Eggs can hold temperatures for more than 18 hours without adding more coals. Heat can reach more than 600 degrees to sear steaks like high-end restaurants.
Fear set in the first time I opened my 219-pound XL Big Green Egg. I didn't think I needed advice on how to man flames in a grill, but I was wrong. I didn't know how to ignite, set and control the fire beneath its 24-inch cooking surface. Lighter fluid could not be used.
I found an online forum of more than 15,000 Eggheads who answer questions for newcomers. Within seconds, they were explaining why you "burp" an Egg, raising the lid in stages. (The burping technique prevents flames from shooting out at your face. That's important if you like eyebrows.)
Nightly rituals in the following months involved reading thousands of cooking tips and staring at photos of mouth-watering briskets, smoked fruit and fatties (sausage and cheese and other delectables rolled into a log and wrapped in bacon). Debates centered around what some labeled the best meat rub and lump charcoal.
It didn't take long to become obsessed. Dozens of Eggheads have created spice lines or written cookbooks. Thousands showcase their food on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. I followed.
"It's an addiction," Josh Tahan said. "For me, it's being connected to the BGE community."
Tahan discovered the Big Green Egg in 2011 at a party in South Florida. He now owns four and estimates he has spent $8,000 to $10,000 to showcase his Eggs in an outdoor kitchen at his Riverview home. He cooks on the Eggs about five days a week.
Since mastering the cooker, Tahan now holds classes at cooking stores, butcher shops and craft breweries. He even started True Craft BBQ, a catering company devoted to smoked food.
Big Green Eggs have been around since 1974. But in 2014, the Egg was new to me.
While I had smoked meat on other grills, the methods and accessories did not transfer to the Egg. Soon, I was making multiple trips to the store to buy extended racks, cast iron cooking grids and other "Eggcessories."
When my wife returned from a week of traveling that fall, she demanded to know why I had 800 pounds of lump charcoal stockpiled at our house. I explained that Eggheads mentioned a $7.99 coupon for a 20-pound bag would be accepted at multiple stores. My bride rolled her eyes.
Meanwhile, my initial attempts at pizza failed. The first brisket came out bitter. Too much wood, Eggheads said. It took several months and a few piles of wasted meat to feel comfortable. Now, I'm making my own rubs with fresh spices from Savory Spice Shop in St. Petersburg. I prefer to concoct my own sauces.
I'm an Egghead.
Maybe not a master, but I do feel comfortable cooking for large groups of friends or colleagues. It's easy to find taste testers.
Big Green Eggs are more expensive than gas grills and other charcoal grills at big-box retailers. Depending on the seller, prices range from about $400 for a Mini Egg to more than $3,900 for an XXL model. (One benefit Eggheads love is the lifetime warranty.) The best deals, Eggheads say, are found at annual Egg events.
These "Eggfests" held across the country are designed to showcase cooks' skills; the camaraderie revolves around the love of smoking and grilling meats. One of these events, Eggs by the Bay, is coming to Tampa on Saturday.
"The center of all of this is food," said Luke Salazar of St. Petersburg, the owner of five Eggs. "That is a common denominator that crosses all boundaries. I've made friends from all over the country because of the Egg. Everybody has to eat."
Salazar said he became hooked on Eggs 15 years ago, going to Lowe's or Home Depot to buy new ones. He has invested more than $3,000 in his Eggs, and it's not unusual for him to have three or four cooking at once, he said.
"It's no different than having a stove, an oven and a microwave in use at once," he said, adding that he cooks on his Eggs five to six days a week.
When he invites friends over, he'll use two Eggs to bake pizzas. Hamburgers and hot dogs sizzle on another. He also cooks his entire Thanksgiving meal on the Eggs.
"The flavor of the charcoal can't be replicated," he said. "It makes an average cook a better cook."
Kurt Halls agreed.
The Land O'Lakes resident bought his first large Egg in 2011. After traveling to events across the South, Halls bought three more. He estimates he has invested more than $8,000 for the cookers and hordes of accessories.
At first, Halls said his wife questioned the spending. But as his cooking skills expanded, he developed Caribeque Seasoning & Rub Co., a spice line sold in 32 stores. Now, his wife encourages him to keep growing.
Whether in their back yard or at events, Eggheads look out for each other, Halls said.
"It's about the brotherhood and sisterhood," he said. "I really enjoy the creativity and diversity of the Egg. It's not just ribs and chicken."
When I bought my Egg in 2014, I heard the sales pitch at the store. I was torn between the large and extra large. The large Egg is the most popular model and can handle food for most families. As the clock ticked, my wife chided me to make a decision. I didn't want to rush it. I reminded her how sometimes she takes eight outfits into a dressing room and leaves the store empty-handed.
The former trucker in me wanted more space to cook more meat — bigger is better. My internal debate lasted 30 minutes, then I told the employee I wanted the large Egg. That's when another man, lounging in a recliner as his wife shopped for patio furniture, warned that I should buy the extra large. Without hesitation, I changed my mind.
The man, who insisted he didn't own an Egg, said bigger is better. We fist-bumped. My wife joked that testosterone finalized the purchase. I hope Laura is that understanding when I ask to buy another Big Green Egg.
Contact Mark Puente at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.