Certain American brands are known for the fervent loyalty of their customers: Apple, Harley-Davidson, Dunkin’ Donuts, Budweiser, Dale Earnhardt Jr. But you should add one more name to the list that has developed a unique evangelical following: Big Green Egg. If you’re a fan of outdoor cooking, odds are that you either have one of these popular ceramic charcoal grill/smokers or you at least have a friend who incessantly tries to convince you to switch from your Weber or gas grill to the joys of kamado-style cooking. It’s a tough argument to battle against, since ceramic cookers are superior at retaining heat and cooking food evenly, and they’re quite flexible for grilling steaks, smoking pork shoulders or even baking a reasonable facsimile of a wood-oven pizza. And your “Egg Head” friend probably won’t let up until you join him in the cause.
This is understandable, because the Big Green Egg (as well as the Medium Green Egg, Extra Large Green Egg, etc.) are remarkable cooking devices. Get a group of Egg aficionados together and it’s not hard to start up a call-and-response of “Big Green Egg!” followed by “The ultimate cooking experience!”
In fact, a gathering of Egg Heads is exactly what happened last weekend in Georgia, as more than 4,000 fans came together in a parking lot to cook for each other and share their love of their favorite pastime as part of the 19th annual Eggtoberfest. The event is held under the watchful eyes of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson carved in bas-relief into the side of Stone Mountain, a huge mass of quartz monzonite that rises in an 825-foot-tall dome above the surrounding park, looking not dissimilar to the lid of a Big Green Egg.
Eggtoberfest started as a small gathering of fans who met at a retail grill shop on Claremont Road in Atlanta and asked if they could borrow a few Eggs and some space to cook for each other. Through the years, the group grew as more and more cooks from around the country wanted to make the pilgrimage to the home of the Egg to show off their talents at kamado cuisine. The event moved to and outgrew several locations through the years, including a local restaurant, the corporate headquarters of BGE and the Atlanta Motor Speedway, before settling in Stone Mountain. This location is convenient because it is relatively close to the national distribution center for the grills, and the staff spends much of the summer assembling Eggs for use at Eggtoberfest.
These kamados are delivered to the parking lot and set up for 200 teams of two cooks apiece to work on all day. In order to hold a spot, participants log on to the Eggtoberfest website to register, often in groups as large as 20 people who pitch their tents together to share cooktops. This year, registration opened on August 1, and all available cooking spots were claimed in less than an hour. Soon after daybreak, the lot opens and hundreds of cooks scramble to start their Eggs, decorate their booths and scrawl the day’s menu and serving schedule on white boards that hang from their 10 x 10-foot tents.
Four thousand attendees also pay $45 a head to attend Eggtoberfest, but it’s a bargain at that price. In addition to a T-shirt and swag bag plus five drink tickets, the crowd spends the day sampling scores of dishes from amateur chefs showing off their chops (and shoulders and ribs), as well as from dozens of restaurants; professional chefs are also there, sponsored by Big Green Egg to conduct cooking seminars throughout the day and offer samples of their own Egg creations.
The whole operation is an interesting amalgam of volunteer efforts from the army of Egg Nation devotees and the professional marketing staff of the company. It shows a real mutual connection between manufacturer and customer that the volunteer cooks set aside a weekend to travel to suburban Atlanta, bring enough food for at least 400 portions of their chosen dish and cook all day in the outdoor elements. While Eggtoberfest must be a huge marketing expense for the company, it probably doesn’t hurt that they also set up a huge retail tent on the edge of the festival grounds selling every sort of “Egg-cessory.” For their reward, attendees have the opportunity to purchase the actual Eggs used for cooking at Eggtoberfest at the end of the day at a significant discount on the regular price. Considering that discount sales on Big Green Eggs are almost unheard of at retail outlets, the chance to save a bundle on a grill that has been used only once is a pretty big deal.
Ray Lampe, better known as Dr. BBQ, is considered “the Ultimate Big Green Egg Ambassador,” and it’s no coincidence that his ninth cookbook was released during the same week as Eggtoberfest. Written especially for the Big Green Egg, the book was a popular addition to the shopping bags of attendees visiting the retail tent, and the Tutankhamen-bearded outdoor cooking expert warmly greeted his legion of fans and signed books all day long. Lampe has attended 13 Eggtoberfests, and he’s still amazed at the exuberance of the Egg Heads. “I describe it as 400 people cooking for 4,000 people who’ve all come to worship the Egg.”
Another attendee, Doug from Peachtree City, is just a tiny bit cynical about Eggtoberfest. “We know this is the greatest marketing scam on the face of the earth, but we love it! It’s a meeting of the cult.” His multigenerational group of about 20 guys wearing the gear of their favorite college-football teams spent the day serving a multicourse tasting menu to the masses and making sure to empty their coolers of meat and booze so that they would be lighter for the hike back to the car at the end of the day.
“This is the only time some of us get together, but we make sure to do it every year. Some of the guys are bringing their sons with them now. I love that the atmosphere is very collegial. Unlike competitive barbecue, everybody here is willing to share their cooking secrets. But it’s really hard to make bad food on a Big Green Egg.”
According to legend, Rodney Deal is the only person to have attended all 19 editions of Eggtoberfest. Known on the Big Green Egg online forum by his sobriquet, Mr. Toad, Deal has cooked “Miss Alyce’s Baked Apples” along with his wife since the second year of the festival, and long-timers know to line up at noon for a spoonful from his cast-iron Dutch oven. “They don’t let us bring in glass, so I always have a few airplane bottles of brandy to add to the apples,” explains Mr. Toad. “I bought my first Egg 21 years ago, and I’ve never even washed it. It just works. It’s the best at maintaining heat and holding in moisture. My wife and mother-in-law love chicken but insist that it has to be cooked to 210 degrees. Nothing else could keep chicken moist at that temp.”
There are more than 60 Egg festivals around the world, including an annual Flavour Fair in Europe that is almost as big as Eggtoberfest. But for sheer enthusiasm and dedication to the brand, there’s no better demonstration of the Big Green Egg’s popularity than the almost 5,000 fans standing around in a hot asphalt parking lot in central Georgia, feeding each other, swapping tips and reveling in the knowledge that they are cooking on a device that is superior to whatever piece of junk you’re probably using. Go ahead, just ask one of them.