Hot Controversy: History of Outdoor Cooking

Whether your brand of outdoor cooking is called barbecue, grilling, smoking or roasting or your venue is a pit, spit, brazier or grill, you’re practicing an ancient survival skill.

The basic concept of combining food and flame likely began soon after humans discovered fire. And just as cultures evolved and became diverse, so did culinary methods, reflecting differences in region, tradition and personal taste. In fact, some enthusiasts' opinions on barbecue are seared as deeply as their beliefs in politics or religion. Each camp stands firmly behind its interpretation of how to heat meat.

Despite the simplicity of that act, people find much to disagree about in the details: gas, charcoal (hardwood lumps or briquettes) or wood; pork, beef, poultry or fish; rub, sauce (vinegar or tomato-base) or marinade; low and slow or hot and fast — the list goes on and on.

Even the word barbecue is embroiled in controversy: It's used as a noun, a verb and an adjective in variations such as barbeque, BBQ, Bar-B-Q, Barbie and Q. Although the story of its origin is not certain, it most likely comes from the Spanish word barbacoa or the Caribbean barabicu, a rack made of green wood used to suspend food above a smoking fire. Initially, smoke was generated to repel insects and critters and to deter decay while meat dried in the sun for preservation. But people soon discovered that the slow-smoke process added flavor and helped to tenderize tougher cuts of meat.

For centuries barbecue fuel was wood or chunks of charred wood, until 1897, when Pennsylvania chemist Ellsworth Zwoyer filed a patent for manufactured briquettes. The pillow-shape composites were made of charred wood and other dry ingredients that were ground and mixed with a binder and then compressed into small blocks. During the early 1920s, Henry Ford (seeking a productive use for the mounting pile of wood scraps at his Model-T plant) set up his own briquette factory. The resourceful automaker delegated his new operation to E.G. Kingsford, a name that we associate with charcoal briquettes to this day.

Another stride forward in the background of barbecue is the grill itself. For home cookouts, the backyard grill (made of brick or stone) became popular during the mid-1900s. With the post-WWII migration to the suburbs, a more compact, portable alternative, the brazier grill, became the next hot item. In 1952 welder George Stephen (a frequent backyard chef) sought to improve the open-style grills. He welded legs to the bottom of a buoy form and shaped a lid to go on top. With the addition of a handle and some adjustable air ports, the Weber Kettle was born.

Outdoor cooking evolved again during the 1960s: In a quest to boost sales of natural gas, the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. designed a gas-fueled grill. Although charcoal aficionados contend that their fuel is best, the speed and convenience of gas cooking has won many fans.

Across the country, custom and culture have determined the meanings of barbecue and separated the Qs from the grills. In Texas, where beef reigns, the menu is brisket or steak. In the Southeast, where wild pigs were once the meat mainstay, pork (ribs and roasts) is king. Memphis and Kansas City both claim to be the barbecue capital of the world. Here in the North, we grill; but when we gather to grill, we call the event a barbecue. Each outdoor-cooking tradition runs deep, and though differences in the approach may spark disagreements, the result — a tasty meal — ultimately brings us together.

Wind, rain and cold are obstacles to open-grill cooking. To overcome these challenges and provide adjustable airflow for regulating heat, George Stephen, a shop welder for Weber Brothers Metal Works, fashioned the now-famous kettle grill in 1952 (shown in the photo above).