THE HISTORY OF BBQ: HOW AMERICANS HAVE MADE IT OUR OWN
Can you smell it in the air? The superb aroma that fills our noses and reminds us that Spring is truly here. It has become a cherished part of the warm weather seasons here in America, something people take pride in mastering.
Barbeque has always been one thing that Americans seem to come together on. Since George Washington’s building of a large smokehouse on his plantation in Virginia and frequencies to barbeques in the near town of Alexandria, barbeque has become the cooking version of the American pastime. Lyndon B. Johnson even held his first presidential dinner – where he hosted German Chancellor Ludwig Erhart – as a barbeque for 300 in Texas on December 29, 1963. The lure of music, friends and enchanting taste of barbeque has taken over America, and we have made it our own.
Barbeque, of course, did not originate here. The word “barbeque” was first included in a dictionary in 1755 by Samuel Johnson, a British lexicographer, in the Dictionary of the English Language. “Barbacoa,” the origin of the English barbeque, goes back to the Arawak Tribe who were discovered by Europeans with the settling of the New World. In the Tribe, the word described wooden racks, which were often used to make shelves and keep goods off of the damp floors in their huts. The other use for these wood racks was to hold meat above a fire for it to cook. This meaning of the word is the one that seems to have stuck and was brought back to Europe.
This fact may have people wondering exactly how far back the history of barbeque goes. Does it go back with languages that were long forgotten? Or to the first Homo sapiens? Anthropologists believe that the idea of barbeque can be traced back over a million years ago to a species predating common man called Homo erectus. In 2007, Israeli scientists at the University of Haifa uncovered evidence (scrape marks on bones and burn marks on joints) of early humans living about 200,000 years ago having barbequed. Due to the limitations of wooden tools, the evidence of barbecues from before that time period mostly comes from conjecture, but there is limited tangible evidence like cave paintings that support their belief.
It was due to these wooden tools and spits that the idea of smoking meats was created. To keep their wooden spits from burning they had to be set high above the fire and the meat then absorbed much of the smoke while it was cooking. It was the phenomena of smoked food that then set the species apart. Smoked meats do not only taste better, but last longer. This allowed humans to preserve food before the age of the refrigerator and modern preservative methods, giving an advantage in the primitive world.
Many early civilizations cooked meats above the fire in ceramic urns. In India these devices were called tandoors. In Japan they were referred to as Kamado. Yet, it was not until the writing of the Hebrew Old Testament between 1300 and 1500 B.C. that there were detailed designs for a relatively modern barbeque pit. It was meant to be 4 ½ feet tall by 7 ½ feet wide and was used to slow cook large animals like bulls and rams. Over a thousand years after that, when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., several small grills were preserved. The gridiron – much like the grate on modern grills – was created soon after the decline of the Iron Age. In Europe, there are paintings of indoor barbeque spits dating back to the 13th century. The progression of ancient barbeque technology is intriguing and clearly demonstrates that no lack of modern tools could stop man from the taste of meat cooked over the fire.
The historical lure of barbeque lies with more than the fascinating stories of its creation; the great lengths and technological advances that barbeque pushed people to is amazing. First mentioned in print in 1576, Europeans created spits that could be turned by dogs – most likely one with short legs, like a corgi, but the breed would be extinct in the modern age. Even the infamous Leonardo Da Vinci dabbled in barbeque technology, inventing a rotisserie with a fan that turned the meat with the rising of the hot air.
Even common household phrases like “tastes like chicken” can be linked back with the history of barbeque. This term in particular was coined by Christopher Columbus when he and his men killed a 6 foot long “serpent” that was most likely an Iguana and, naturally, roasted and ate it. In his journal, Columbus commented on its taste, saying, “It tasted like chicken.”
Since barbeques history dates so far back, some may wonder why Americans are so well known for it. That is because U.S. barbeque goes beyond just the simple cooking of meat. Sauces have been crafted and perfect recipes made, truly exemplifying the art of cooking.
American barbeque sauce has its roots in South Carolina where, from a group of German settlers, the classic mustard based sauce was born. Yet, it obviously was a rigorous process to get that basic start to evolve into the worldwide competition that it is today. In 1867, there was a book published, Mrs. Hill’s New Cookbook, that created a “sauce for barbecue.” This was another early form of today’s barbeque sauce, and was comprised mostly of butter and vinegar.
It was not until 1871, in Hardmen County, Tennessee, that there was first mention of modern barbeque sauce in the Bolivar Bulletin. Then it took another 38 years, until 1909, for the first commercially available barbeque sauce to be made by Georgia Barbeque Sauce Company in Atlanta, Georgia. It was not until 1948 that H.J. Heinz made the first nationally distributed barbeque sauce. Now there is an enormous variety of sauces for our delicious barbeque; it seems like every restaurant or well-known chef has their own “famous” or “special” mix. Each and every person has one's own preferences.
Perhaps a favorite originates with Henry Perry, a barbeque chef in Kansas City who in 1907 started one of the oldest and well known barbeque restaurants. It is now known as Arthur Bryant's BBQ. He is said to have been the father of Kansas City barbeque, which is now the nation’s most important barbecue center. Kansas City, Missouri has the most barbeque restaurants per capita than any other city in the world.
Original barbeque joints would simply cook the meat out back behind their stores in pits filled with hot embers with a grate on top. Obviously food and safety laws prevent that kind of situation today, so restaurants take special care with new indoor rigs. At first, they simply resembled the brick models of the outdoor pits, but above ground. Now they have advanced well beyond early styles.
In the 1940s Chicago Combustion Corporation –called LazyMan today – began making grills for restaurants with lava rocks that replaced charcoal. Then, in 1968, Herbert Oyler of Mesquite, Texas, started to build wood-fired smokers with shelves that revolved around an axle, thus creating the Ferris wheel pit (these types of pits are still made today by J & R Manufacturing). The true competition of creating the best indoor barbeque pits, however, began in 1976 when brothers Mike and B.B. Robertson got the idea to fabricate the Ferris wheel style pits with some design improvements. Now, pits have evolved into impressive high tech motorized temperature and smoke controlled devices that can be run by computer.
Although all of this information is interesting, the real barbecue fanatics are wondering why we have not yet discussed home grilling rigs. The true essence of American barbeque cannot be captured in any restaurant, or even any building. It is the backyard cooking over the open flame that really makes barbeque special.
The first modern portable grilling began as early as 1863 when J.C. Milligan of NJ patented a portable mess kettle that contained everything a soldier would need for a dinner for four people, including, of course, a portable gridiron. This idea of making barbeque portable caught on, and old Sears catalogs from the 1890s feature a variety of portable grills for sale. In the 1920s, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and EB Kingsford began commercial manufacturing of charcoal out of sawdust and wood scraps from the Ford factory in Detroit. Ford then began to sell portable grills in an attempt to push camping as a great way to use automobiles.
Yet technological advancement must overhaul portable grills as well. In the late 1940s came the search to find out how to control the temperature of a grill. Winfield & Irene Alter of Tulsa, Oklahoma, began working on a kettle type grill that would be made of cast iron and use a rotary vent to attempt to control the inside temperature. It came to be marked as the “Cook ‘N’ Kettle in 1947.” One year later, Grant “Hasty” Hastings introduced his version of temperature control with the “Hasty-Bake.” His grill has a hood and an adjustable height tray for charcoal. Neither of these versions' methods of temperature worked well enough for one inventor though. So in 1952, George Stephens invented the “Weber Kettle” which had a hood that could be tightly closed and multiple air vents. The Weber Kettle was the first successful temperature-controlled grill and truly changed the face of American backyards forever.
In 1959 a 20-pound propane cylinder, often used by plumbers, was adapted to create the first modern portable gas grill. Then, in 1960, Walker Koziol’s Modern Home Products mass produced consumer gas grills. In the lake 1970s Char-Broil became the first brand of grill to put a liquid propane tank and grill in one box, and we have made the full evolution of the history of barbecuing.
It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, or if this history lesson is even relevant to you - everyone who enjoys meat can enjoy the succulent taste of meat cooked over the open fire. We encourage you to get out with friends to have a little fun this Spring and Summer, and don’t forget the barbeque!