The History Of Barbecue And Why Henry Ford’s Cars Are Part Of It


What is the history and origin of barbecue? What was the first barbecue grill? This and many more questions are the topic of this article. Come with us on a journey into the history of barbecue!

Have you ever wondered why there seems to be such a natural inclination to want to cook outdoors over an open flame? An inclination that seems to be ingrained into your DNA?

Nowadays you just need to take a trip to your local grocery store and you’ll see countless marinades, rubs, and sauces lining the shelves. Go to the meat section and you’ll see all sorts of cuts, some are even pre-marinated and ready to be thrown on the grill.

If you want to buy yourself a new grill then it seems like there are a million options, whether you’re looking for a more traditional charcoal grill, a nice and reliable gas grill, or a sophisticated pellet grill and smoker.

So, while the barbecue grill has become more accessible than ever, it may be nice to become acquainted with where it all began and the journey it’s taken.

What is The Origin of Barbecue?

It’s believed that homo-erectus, the caveman race that came before homo-sapiens were first to utilize cooked meat in their diet. The evolutionary advantage that came from cooking meat would mean that food could be eaten much more quickly and the nutrition benefits allowed the human brain to evolve at a much higher speed.

To consider when barbecued food was first eaten, one of the most likely theories goes back to the caveman days. It’s very plausible that our ancient ancestors would come across dead animals that had been killed and cooked by forest fires.

After trying the meat, it’s likely that the taste would have been far better than that of raw meat, and nutritional benefits of having cooked meat over raw meat would most likely have been felt. Over time our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors began to develop methods of cooking over flames, giving birth to the very first barbecue grills.

Since early humans were organized into tribes, it was most probably the case that the tribe was able to organize itself by grilling meat in very large batches to satisfy the whole community.

While there is, of course, very little evidence on what really happened during caveman times, this explanation does make sense when you consider the rewarding feeling you get from hosting a gathering and cooking over an open flame. There really is nothing quite like a cookout to bring people together.

Where Does The Word ‘Barbecue’ Come From?

Although it’s commonly debated, and there will always be uncertainty regarding the exact origin, it’s believed that indigenous tribes of the Caribbean that utilized these methods already had a word for it in their vocabulary. It was ‘barbacoa.’ And, in case you’re familiar with the Spanish language, this is the Spanish word for ‘barbecue.’

While this is generally accepted as being the origin of the word barbecue, there are others, however, that believe that the word comes from the French word ‘barbe à que.’ This means to roast an entire animal, and the literal translation of this word means ‘from beard to tail.’

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What is The History of Barbecue in America?

While it’s not 100% clear where the barbecue’s popularity in America originally comes from, part of the credit has to go to the early settlers of the Spanish empire who made the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean and landed upon the shores of the American continent.

Their aggressive strategies of sailing to new-found lands would lead Christopher Columbus and his crew to come across indigenous tribes in the Caribbean that would preserve their meats under the sun. Obviously, the big drawback to employing this method is that the meat eventually goes bad and becomes infested with minibeasts and other kinds of bugs.

The locals had a useful method, however, for handling these problems. They would construct a series of small and smoky fires, and then put the meat on racks on top of the flames. Another one of their methods would be to dig a pit and slow-cook the meat for several hours in the ground. These tricks would work perfectly to keep the meat nicely preserved and repel all of the annoying bugs that would have infested the meat.

How Barbecue Came to America

After a while, more and more Europeans and Africans continued moving west, eventually to the region that is now the United States. The primary protein food source for all the colonies came from the European cattle and pigs that were delivered from Europe to America. Also, Native Americans had also developed their own techniques for cooking animals over an open fire.

Barbecuing became big in the state of Virginia, before its popularity started spreading down through North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, as well as the Appalachians, and into Kentucky and Tennessee. It gradually started moving westward, making a particularly significant impression on the people of Texas.

In the early days of colonial times, barbecues were considered to be quite chaotic affairs. The crowds that would attempt barbecue events would drink heavily and display loud and brazen behavior. This would change, somewhat after the beginning of the 19th century, when a barbecue would become a much more relaxed and pleasant event, something for families and the whole community to enjoy and share time together.

Then the civil war broke out.

Barbecues would take on a whole new meaning and many families and local communities would throw public barbecue events in order to show support and solidarity for the troops that were fighting in battle.

During these periods, as far as the cooking and meal provision went, barbecues tended to be large and randomized in an attempt to serve as many people as possible. You would literally be eating whatever you were given.

Fast forward to the end of the 19th century and there were many entrepreneurial individuals who recognized the popularity and the power of the barbecue and would begin to charge a price for attendance of barbecue events, particularly during the peak times of public holidays and festivals.

Initially, they would utilize tents that could be moved from site to site depending on where the best location would be. Eventually, however, these tents would start to remain in a permanent place, giving birth to the very first barbecue restaurants. During this period, families would also begin to enjoy their own private barbecues in their yards and the common ‘cookout’ suddenly experienced a boom in popularity.

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The Invention Of The Modern Charcoal Briquette

The University of Oregon chemist Orin Stafford inveted a way of creating briquettes by combining tar with left over sawdust and lumber mill waste products, keeping everything together with cornstarch. He named his invention ‘charcoal briquettes’.

The story begins in 1919 when real estate agent, Edward G. Kingsford received an invite from Henry Ford where he would also join Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone. Ford had specifically invited Edward so that the pair could talk about timber, especially the timber that could be found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, since Ford’s hot selling Model T automobiles needed around 100 feet of hardwood.

Less than a year later, Kingsford had assisted Ford in acquiring over 300,000 acres of timberland in Iron Mountain, Michigan, with Ford building a parts plant and sawmill in the location, as well as a neighboring town, called Kingsford that became home to employees.

The town was successful in providing plenty of lumber that Ford had needed for his automobiles. However, in the process it was also creating tons of waste in the form of tree stumps, twigs, branches, and also sawdust. Ford wasn’t happy about this at all, since he didn’t like to waste anything.

Orin Stafford, a chemist from the University of Oregon came up with the ultimate solution. He invented a way of creating lumps of fuel from all the sawdust and waste product from the mill and combining it with tar, before finally bounding it all together by cornstarch. Orin gave it the name ‘charcoal briquettes,’ although Ford later changed the name to ‘briquet.’

Edison then designed a briquette factory adjacent to the mill, and Kingsford was put in charge of its operations. The factory was highly productive, and even though charcoal was supplied to numerous fish and meat smokehouses, there was an excess supply, leading Ford to market ‘picnic kits’ that would consist of portable grills and charcoal, selling them from his own car dealerships.

The Invention Of The ‘Sputnick’ Classic Kettle Grill

George Stephen, a Chicago welder for Weber Brothers Metal Works, was working on building buoys for the Cost Guard, by putting large metal spheres together. By adding three legs to it, he used one of the spheres as a cooking bowl. His creation resembled the Russian satellite ‘Sputnik’.

After World War II had come to an end, American life started to undergo some changes. The suburbs began to spawn and backyard life came to be something that was cherished by families fortunate to own a backyard.

Traditionally, barbecue pits had been used to slow-cook meat for hours and hours. These pits, however, began to give way to a much simpler, freestanding metal brazier where users would grill over a much higher and intense heat.

These models were highly primitive devices, and that’s when a Chicago welder called George Stephen sensed a grand opportunity. He had a large family to take care of and was becoming more and more frustrated with his own device not quite getting the job done. At the time he was working for Weber Brothers Metal Works.

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While he was working on producing large metal spheres together to build buoys for the Coast Guard, he began to visualize his invention. He decided to utilize one of the metal spheres as the actual cooking bowl, adding three legs at the bottom to stand it up, as well as a handle at the top.

The initial reactions weren’t quite what he was expecting. When he took it home and installed it in his yards, his neighbors managed to see the funny side of it and dubbed it the ‘Sputnik.’ However, their opinions soon changed after tasting a delicious piece of meat that George cooked up for them. Demand suddenly exploded, leading George to work full time on producing them and getting them to satisfied families all around America, and beyond.

How Was The Gas Grill Invented?

An innovative individual by the name of Don McGlaughlin was the first person to officially come up with the modern twist on the traditional grill that would see gas being used. In the early 1950s, McGlaughlin owned the Chicago Combustion Corporation. He utilized a gas broiler, called the Broilburger and invented the first ever built in grill.

The first gas grills that were sold utilized lava rock. In order to appeal to commercial American customers, the grills were marketed as ‘open-fire-charcoal-type gas broilers.’ This was because the vast majority of American households in the 1950s didn’t yet own a grill, and so the term broiler would be more appealing to business customers.

The Rise Of Barbecue Competitions

The first ever recorded barbecue competition was the ‘Kaiser Foil Cookoff’ and took place back in 1959 in Hawaii, where the 25 finalists were flown over for the cookoff.

In 1972, the World Championship Cow Country BBQ Cookout was held in Uvalde, Texas back in 1972, with the format being similar to many chili cookoffs that were also incredibly popular in Texas. Then, the following year, there was the first ever Brady World Championship BBQ Goat Cook-Off, as well as another event taking place in Covington, Tennessee.

Competitions kept cropping up everywhere over the next few years, until the Mike Royko Ribfest in Michigan took things to another level with 400 contestants in the first year.

Barbecue Grills Around the World

Of course, North America isn’t the only part of the world with a rich history in barbecue grills. Here are some variations of barbecue grills from around the globe:

  • In Argentina, the Pampa region was full of wild herds of cattle that could roam freely during the 1800s. Gauchos, the name given to skilled and brave horsemen, developed a big taste for beef and would skewer their meet on a metal frame (called an asador) and roast it by putting it close to a slow-burning fire.
  • Throughout Southern, Western and Central Asia, the tandoor oven is commonplace and is especially famous in Indian cuisine for cooking dishes like tandoori chicken. Traditionally, the heat was generated by lighting a wood or charcoal fire, within the tandoor, a cylindrical clay pot.
  • The traditional New Zealand Maori method of cooking is known has hāngi. Here, a large pit is dug in the ground, before a large fire is used to heat up stones. Whole baskets of food are then laid above the piping hot stones, before the whole lot is covered with soil. A few hours later, the digging begins again and what remains is delicious smoked food.

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