Britain’s Big Green Egg obsession is more about status than cooking

The Big Green Egg enjoyed popular sales in the US before coming to the UK, where it retails at £1,375 for the classic 'large' size
The Big Green Egg enjoyed popular sales in the US before coming to the UK, where it retails at £1,375 for the classic 'large' size - NBC

Depending on which of the made-up rubbish you believe, it is National Barbecue Week this week, or next week, or it began on 4 May. Either way, I take June to be the start of what I call Big Green Envy Season. These are the months in which I spend the weekends going from garden to garden, coveting my neighbours’ barbecues. Everywhere you look, there is some new space-age device, a ceramic oven, a restaurant-quality gas range or a multi-tiered extravaganza with a smoker.

It never used to be like this. When I was a child, barbecues in English gardens were all more or less the same: shallow half-domes filled with not-quite-enough charcoal, which would either not-quite-cook meat or drastically overcook it. Today all bets are off. The rest of the property might be crumbling, but there will still be a handsome piece of kit in the garden. Nor is culinary experience a prerequisite. Even men – and I’m afraid in my experience it is mainly men – who you would barely trust to knock up a bowl of cereal think nothing of spending hundreds of pounds on their barbecue.

At the heart of this change is the Big Green Egg, which turns 50 this year. Its inventor, Ed Fisher, gave his creation impeccable mythology. He was inspired by the traditional Asian ‘kamado’ – more like a ceramic charcoal oven than a traditional grill – which had been used for thousands of years. He decided to create his own version – a smart, racing-green ovoid design that retails at £1,375 for the classic ‘large’ size. Heavy ceramics handled with a smooth opening and closing action. Asian nerdery plus American slickness plus meat. An irresistible combination.

Customers lapped it up. The Egg conquered America before beginning its UK campaign, appearing at the Chelsea Flower Show, and being endorsed by chefs. Imitators inevitably followed, including an Aldi Kamado Ceramic Egg for just under £400. Celebrities, not all of them renowned gourmets, quickly cottoned on. David Beckham, Elizabeth Hurley, the Duchess of Sussex: all public Egg-heads.

On the face of it, there is something distinctly un-British about all this macho gadgetry. Barbecue in America is a deep and rich world, regionally specific and intricately linked to its history. Grilling makes better sense when you have more than 10 days of sunshine. British barbecue culture is not about melting points and rubs and meat thermometers, but about drinking a glass of supermarket wine with your neighbours while someone assertively turns a sausage into charcoal and someone else holds the umbrella. The only practical advantage of an egg barbecue here is that it is covered from the rain.

Yet when you think of barbecues in terms of class anxiety, the explosion of fancy barbecues in the UK makes perfect sense. The Big Green Egg not only claimed market share from incumbents, but changed the parameters of what people were prepared to spend. The Egg – and its imitators – offer discerning grillsmen the chance to spend thousands on a visually distinct item, in a category where previously you struggled to spend more than a few hundred. That’s before you’ve bought official branded charcoal.

Like all status symbols, the point of the Big Green Egg is not to improve your cooking, but to signal your membership of the club.

Hyacinth Bucket would have been on to it in a flash. Still, we Eggless can console ourselves with the greatest indulgence of all: cooking inside.