The Evolution of Backyard Barbeque

In America, the backyard barbeque is a family tradition that has its roots in the 1940s but goes back all the way to the domestication of fire. The earliest members of mankind found that food tastes better if you hold it over a fire for a while, however this is not specifically what we think of when we think of the term “barbeque.” The earliest known relative of barbeque comes from indigenous tribes discovered by Christopher Columbus. These tribes developed “a unique method for cooking meat over an indirect flame, created using green wood to keep the food (and wood) from burning.” The Spanish referred to this more controlled style of cooking as barbacoa. We see versions of barbacoa throughout the world, most of them resemble a rotisserie over a campfire. Before then grilling mostly happened at campsites and picnics. It took years of innovation to create the modern experience of backyard grilling. Inventions such as charcoal briquettes, the modern grill, and various techniques such as basting and dry rubs are what make up the culture of backyard barbeque. 

The earliest of innovations in modern barbeque took place In the early 1920s when Henry Ford had an idea on how to make use of extra wood and sawdust left over from creating wood frames for the model T. Being a nature lover, Ford hated to see all of the wasted leftover stumps, branches, and sawdust and wanted to find a use for all the extra material. When Ford was not at work he was camping with his friends Edward G. Kingsford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, and John Burroughs. A common problem Ford had when camping was finding enough dry firewood to create a sustainable fire. Ford found that he could use the scraps and sawdust, pressed into lumps held together by tar and cornstarch, as a quick and easy way to start a fire. Ford introduced the idea of charcoal briquettes and solved both of his issues at once. Despite Ford being known for the creation of the charcoal briquette, the idea was actually invented earlier by Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer from Philadelphia who patented the idea in 1897. Ford, however, was the first to commercially market it and was the first person with the resources to make it widely popular. Ford put his signature logo on the charcoal briquettes bags and sold them exclusively at his many car dealerships. Charcoal briquettes were marketed as “a fuel of a hundred uses” and perfect for “barbecues, picnics, hotels. restaurants, ships, clubs, homes, railroads, trucks, foundries, tinsmiths, meat smoking, and tobacco curing.”  After Henry Ford died in 1947, his son sold Ford’s charcoal briquette division to a team of investors and they renamed the briquettes Kingsford Charcoal in honor of Edward Kingsford, Ford’s brother in law, friend, and the real estate agent who found and helped Ford purchase woodlands in Iron Mountain, Michigan to build a sawmill for cutting the wood for Model T’s. 

The most important piece of any grill-out is, of course, the grill. Weber Brothers Metal Works, founded in 1887 produced a range of metal products, from hinges to wagons. In the 1950s, George Stephen, Sr. worked in sales at Weber Brothers Metal Works, which his father ran at the time. He often worked on fabricating and selling innovative products, including mailboxes, fireplace equipment, and metal buoys for both the Coast Guard and the Chicago Yacht Club. However, being a family man with twelve children, George knew that “one of the best ways to bring families together was through a shared meal enjoyed in the great outdoors,” as quoted by his son. At the time the most common grills were open charcoal braziers. The issue with brazier grills was that there was no covering so weather such as rain and snow made them useless, they only had a single heat and no control, and even in clear skies many people had issues with the wind blowing ash everywhere. In 1952 George decided to make his own grill by taking two half spheres of a buoy and putting them together to make a grill. His first attempt did not work because the fire very quickly went out, so he decided to use his tools and put some holes in it for air. After adding features such as adjustable vents for snuffing out flames after cooking, Stephen marketed this first grill as “George’s Barbecue Kettle.” It sold for $29.95, or the equivalent of around $270 today. In the mid 1950’s George had to split his business from his father’s and venture out on his own, and after a few successful years he bought out his father’s partner and changed the name of the company to “Weber-Stephen.” Advertisements would often portray the kettle grills next to ads for live demonstrations and the chance to try out what food tasted like from a weber grill. 

Going back to the 1940s post WWII, with the availability of charcoal briquettes and the creation of the kettle grill, there was a major boom in barbeque recipes and barbeque technology. Following the boom in backyard barbeque popularity, there was a boom is backyard barbeque cookbooks. Many chefs such as James Beard made revolutionary cookbooks that defined the beginning of the culture of backyard barbeque. For example James Beard’s “Cook it outdoors” (1941) included “a dozen different hamburger recipes, flavorful barbecue sauces and salad dressings; and how to choose and cook meats including beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and fish, plus the more exotic cuts such as pheasant, goose, partridge, quail, and venison.” James Beard also wrote a cookbook called “The Complete Book of Barbecue & Rotisserie Cooking” which was Retitled in 1958 as New Barbecue Cookbook, in 1966 as Jim Beard’s Barbecue Cookbook, and in 1967 as James Beard’s Barbecue Cookbook. “Beard’s definition of barbecue and rotisserie cookery was elastic—he included recipes and suggestions for picnic food such as sandwiches, oil-and-garlic sauce for spaghetti” however this was a great example of classic barbeque cooking.

With the creation of charcoal briquettes and the kettle grill, barbeque became a staple social gathering. One of the biggest motivators for this was politics. “”As politicians started campaigning in the age before there was TV or radio, [barbecues were] a great way to get people together and get your voice heard.” If not political events, barbeque was at the center of meetings, family meals, reunions, and festivals and fairs. However it was only after World War II that the culture of barbeque began to grow exponentially. “The suburban rush took off and people began moving en masse away from the cities. An aura hung around backyard leisure.” Following the war there was also a “meat craze” due to meat being rationed during the war. People all over the country were excited to cook meat at home more than ever due to its massive rise in availability. Barbeque became “the man’s domain, providing a way for them to help cook that fell in what were considered the established gender roles of the time.” Advertisements all portrayed men sitting around the grill while women and children were in the background enjoying the meal or observing. 

The next major development in bbq was the creation of the propane and natural gas grills. Arkla Embermatic was the company credited with designing one of the first outdoor gas grills. This was done because Arkla Embermatic, which is actually the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company, wanted to sell more natural gas to its customers. These grills became a regular household item, as many people were sick of dealing with briquettes and lighter fluid. However the company mainly focuses on indoor gas grills for home and restaurants. In the 1960’s, William G Wepfer and Melton Lancaster, both employees of the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company, refurbished a charcoal grill to run on bottled liquid propane. Although some consumers were reluctant at first to change over, due to existing propane fuel costs, the new cooking appliance quickly became a favorite of grill lovers everywhere. 

Moving forward into the 1970’s, an oil crisis caused a massive demand for an affordable heat source. Around 1982 a man named Joe Traeger whose family owned an Oregon heating company, began experimenting with a pellet-burning furnace. “During a Fourth of July barbecue in 1985, Joe stepped away from cooking chicken, only to return and find the grill engulfed in flames. Kicking it over in frustration, he began a quest to build a better grill, one that burned wood pellets.” Traeger made his first smoker grill in 1985, the design was very similar to that of existing charcoal grills. The smokers were designed as “a classic drum barrel body with a chimney; where the side-mounted firebox had been, Traeger put the pellet hopper.” Pellets traveled from the hopper onto a rotating auger which sent them into the fire-pot. Inside was a fan that stoked the fire and helped distribute heat. “Traeger took his reinvented grill on the road, performing demos for a public that had never seen anything like it.”


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