In case you missed it, this is what the world’s most successful infomercial looks like: George Foreman – buff, bald and swaggering – sports a maroon boxing robe as he strides into the made-for-TV kitchen of his exceptionally cheerful cohost, a woman named Nancy Nelson. It is 1996, and her mind is about to be blown. “You did not come here today to box, right?” Nelson asks Foreman.
“Not at all,” he says, before tossing off the robe to reveal that he’s wearing a red apron beneath it. “As a matter of fact – da-da-dada!” (Yes, Big George made his own transformational sound effect. And it worked.)
Over the next 30 minutes, the semiofficial-sounding “George Foreman Grilling Show” introduces the concept of a cheap electric grill with slanted vertical ridges and a press-down lid: George Foreman’s Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine. Plug it in and it gets hot quickly. Toss on some meat, lower the lid, place the tiny grease tray in front, and—voilà! In minutes, your food emerges grease-free and evenly cooked (often well-done, to be exact).
Foreman hams it up, making clear that his target isn’t Joe Frazier or Ken Norton but burger fat and chicken grease. At one point, he points to his own embossed signature on the top of the device. “Hey, we gonna eat what we want, but we gonna knock the fat out,” he says. Burgers sizzle; the audience oohs and ahhs. This is campy, melodramatic ’90sera selling at its best.
When the infomercial first hit the air, Foreman was in his mid-40s, fresh off one of the greatest career comebacks in boxing history. He’d won Olympic gold in 1968 and gone pro, knocking out Frazier in 1973 to become the heavyweight champion. He was KO’d by Muhammad Ali a year later, and at 28, he retired to become a minister at his own church in Houston. Ten years later, Foreman returned, going on to knock out Michael Moorer, a man nearly 20 years his junior, to reclaim the heavyweight title.
Foreman arrived on our TV sets as a guy who could still go toe-to-toe with anyone, bringing along the promise that there was an easier way to cook healthy and perhaps stay that way. And that one-two punch would spark a cultural shift in how men – or at least this man, and every guy I went to uni with – cook and eat.
The thing is, George Foreman obviously didn’t invent it. In early 1993, Michael Boehm and Robert Johnson, a designer-engineering duo from Illinois, filed a patent application for an electric cooking device with the lower cooking plate sloped at a 20Ëš angle. They called it the Short-Order Grill. In his book The Art of Sales, Marketing & the Spokesperson, Leon Dreimann, then CEO of a kitchen-equipment company called Salton that would purchase the design from Boehm and Johnson, writes that this contraption was originally positioned as a taco/fajita maker. The angled surface meant grilled meats could be scraped directly into a tortilla. He attached the “lean, mean, fat-reducing grilling machine” slogan to play off the “Mean Machine”, Burt Reynolds’s team of rowdy prison footballers in the hit 1974 movie The Longest Yard.
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