"I thought perhaps a friend was playing a joke," says Cyndi Allison Wittum, a Catawba College Communication Arts lecturer. "It's not typical for an editor from a national magazine to send an e-mail about covering an assignment, especially when you've never written for the magazine."
Tom Williams, an editor at Consumers Digest, wasn't kidding. He was searching for a grilling expert to work on the spring 2009 issue. He'd seen Wittum's web site, "YES! You Can Grill," and thought she might be a strong candidate for the job.
After a phone interview, it was a waiting game. A couple of writers were being considered, but Williams called the day before Thanksgiving and asked Wittum to take the project.
"We had company in for the holidays, and I was cooking, but I squeezed in a few minutes on Thanksgiving Day to begin the research," says Wittum. "One part of the project involved finding all the available grills on the market, and I knew that would be a daunting task."
In addition to grills featured at major retailers across the country, there are hundreds of small niche companies with grills and smokers ranging from metal barrel models made in garages to yard art smokers covered in ceramic tiles.
"By the time I finished collecting grill information, my paper file folders grew to about 18 inches," says Wittum. "And, that didn't include my electronic files and notes."
In addition to collecting research on everything from metals to starters, Wittum spent most evenings testing grills. Fortunately, winters are fairly mild in North Carolina. Still, the temperature dipped below freezing many nights, and a couple of grill sessions were conducted on snow days.
"I know my neighbors thought I'd lost my mind," says Wittum. "Not only was I outside grilling in frigid weather, I had a growing collection of grills on my porch."
In total, Wittum had 19 grills spread across her small porch and in her kitchen. There were gas grills, charcoal grills, smokers, and a pellet grill.
"One day, a tractor trailer pulled up in front of the house with three huge grills. I had no idea they were en route. Fortunately, I was at home to take the shipment. I was also glad the truck driver helped me unload the grills," says Wittum. "They combined weight was over 800 pounds."
Wittum and her sons ate well all winter as she flipped burgers, seared steaks, and smoked ribs on the various grills. She became a regular at Food Lion and IGA as she looked for meats and fish for grilling during the off-season.
"I know I gained 10 to 15 pounds," says Wittum. "You can't test grills and not eat the food. I'm not complaining, but I will be hitting the gym this summer. I'll also be grilling some of our delicious locally grown vegetables."
As the article began to take shape, Williams was in the background asking the kinds of questions good editors always ask. "What does this mean?" "Are you sure?" "Can you tell me a little more?"
"The most interesting question was about a drop cord," says Wittum. "I guess ‘drop cord' is Southern for ‘extension cord.' I'd never thought of that as being a regional term."
After four months, she and the editors at Consumers Digest finalized the feature and "best buy" selections and sent the pages on which they appeared in the magazine to the printer. It had been a long winter with the Christmas break dedicated to research and nights and weekends spent grilling, writing and revising per the scrutiny applied by the staff at Consumers Digest.
"I think buyers will get a lot of great information in the feature," says Wittum. "And, I know that the grill selections are solid. I'm a savvy shopper, and I evaluated and re-evaluated models to ultimately enable the magazine to recommend high-quality grills that I would purchase or that I'd recommend to a friend."
The June issue of Consumers Digest is currently available (May 2009) on newsstands. Wittum's piece, "Barbecue Grills that Sizzle," is on page 20.
To celebrate the completion of the project, Wittum decided to host a cook out for students in her New Media class.
"The grill project became a nice case example for class discussions," says Wittum. "Staying active in the field ensures that I can provide current and accurate information about the publishing business."
Communication Arts Instructor Fires up a Website on Outdoor Cooking