Americans all over the country love a backyard barbecue. The smell of a juicy slab of beef searing away on top of metal grates brings friends and neighbors together for a day of fun in the sun. According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, Americans are most apt to flip burgers on the grill, although we’re certainly no slouch in grilling runner-ups like steak, hot dogs and chicken. Many aren’t content with cooking meat and the HPBA points out that vegetables like corn and potatoes are also often found on a cooking grate.
Summer holidays bring out the largest number of barbecue fanatics and the three top holidays for grilling are the 4th of July, Memorial Day and Labor Day. With this in mind, and with summer rapidly coming to a close, we thought it would make sense to take a look at the evolution of BBQ technologies.
Humans have been cooking food over an open flame since the very earliest days of human civilization. Man first tamed the forces of fire as early as one million years ago and the ability to cook our food helped humans to expand their dietary options and started us trudging forth on a path towards building the world’s first societies. Although cooked meat has been with us this entire time, the idea of barbecued meats is a relatively much more recent development which has its beginnings in the European cultures coming over to the pre-colonial New World. Of course, the United States certainly can’t claim to have invented the idea of cooking meat over flame, but the way barbecue has developed in our country has taken on a distinctly American flavor.
There is a difference between barbecue and grilling and even though it’s not unusual to hear the term “barbecue grill” used, it is technically a misnomer. Traditional barbecue involves a low-and-slow heating process which is suitable for tougher cuts of meat like flank or brisket because it breaks down the meat’s connective tissue, making it incredibly tender and easy to break apart. The “fall off the bone” ribs that barbecue fanatics seek out come from the low-and-slow approach, which usually takes hours. Grilling puts meat much closer to the heat source and most burgers can be cooked on a grill in 10 minutes or less.
From the Caribbean to the Southeast, Barbecue Takes Hold in the Americas
Within a few decades of the Spanish discovery of the New World, the first description of a wooden framework of sticks designed to cook food over a fire. The use of the word barbacoa to describe this contraption and the associated method of cooking comes from the Historia general y natural de las Indias, published by Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo in 1526. The use of the barbacoa method is attributed in a number of barbecue histories to the Arawak tribes of the Caribbean and South America. Some historians are at odds over whether Oviedo was focused on the wooden structure itself or the all-day cookouts which were held by indigenous tribes, which may explain some of our modern-day confusion over the barbecue cooking style and the backyard grills we use for cookouts.
The day-long outdoor cooking parties that are one of the hallmarks of American barbecue traveled north to the southeastern United States before the end of the British colonial period. A May 1769 diary entry from George Washington, soon to become our nation’s first president, discusses a night-long barbecue in Alexandria where he also won eight shillings in a card game. Presidential barbecues have become a bit of a tradition which has been carried on over the years by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
As barbecue spread regionally, it was adapted into many distinct varieties that deserve at least some mention during any history of American barbecue. The Carolinas are home to three types of barbecue, each of which traditionally uses different cuts of pork and either mustard, vinegar or ketchup-based sauces. But be it Southern, Eastern or Western Carolina barbecue, you’ll typically have coleslaw with it. The pulled pork sandwich with sweet tomato-based sauce is typical of Memphis-style barbecue. Sauce is a major feature of Kansas City-style barbecue, where burnt ends of brisket are a popular dish, but you’ll barely find anything more than dry rub on traditional Texas barbecue. Tennessee, St. Louis, Chicago, Alabama and even Alaska claim specific local varieties of BBQ. Along with specific varieties of sauce and preferred meats to barbecue, many regions also have a preferred type of wood to use when smoking meats.
A couple of technological innovations would help to make grilling more accessible to consumers. A patent for charcoal briquettes for use as a fuel source was issued as early as August 1897. U.S. Patent No. D27483, entitled Design for Fuel, protected a design for lumps of fuel shaped as two truncated pyramids which connected at their bases. This patent was assigned to Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer of Reading, PA, who would go on to form the Zwoyer Fuel Company. Zwoyer and the Zwoyer Fuel Company would go on to earn at least a few more patents, including U.S. Patent No. 1084920, entitled Process for Preparing Pulverulent Materials for Molding or Briqueting. The patent, issued in January 1914, protected a process of subjecting pulverulent material to heating and drying gases and other physical forces which made it easier to form the material into briquettes. The Zwoyer Fuel Company was one of the many victims of the Great Depression and the charcoal briquette was largely popularized by Kingsford Charcoal, a business venture dreamt up by Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford as a way to capitalize from sawdust and wooden scraps normally created as waste materials during vehicle production. Ford would end up selling a “picnic kit” with charcoal briquettes as an accessory for some of its cars produced during the 1930s.
Developments in grilling technologies also sprung forth from a greater allure of outdoor recreation to military campaigns waged over the years. Camp broilers, also known as braziers, were constructed of either iron or wood and were in use during the Revolutionary War period. A movement towards camping during the late 19th century, culminating in the 1910 founding of the Boy Scouts of America, made portable cookers much more desirable. World War II prompted the development of the Coleman Pocket Stove, which weighed 3.5 pounds, could burn multiple types of fuel and was smaller than a quart of milk. In 1942, the U.S. Army began distributing the pocket stove to troops during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa.
George Stephen and the Weber Grill Bring Cookouts to the American Suburbs
In some ways, conventional grills of the 1950s left much to be desired. The use of combustible solid fuel like wood or charcoal created a great deal of ash which couldn’t be easily cleared and often got into the food. As well, most grills were unshielded and any rain put a serious damper on the grill’s ability to heat food properly. Yet the growing number of middle class families living in suburban areas were interested in finding ways to enjoy all of the new yard space that they didn’t have in the city and outdoor cookouts were a good way to congregate with friends and neighbors.
The revolutionary creation of an outdoor grill addressing food quality concerns came from a welder working for a company that fabricated metal buoys. George Stephen took one of the dome shaped buoys from his job at Weber Brothers Metal Works, stationed in Illinois, cut it in half, affixed a metal grate and added a lid to create the first Weber grill. The addition of holes in the lid for venting air into the grill, thus providing more oxygen for the fire, also helped this grill become a hit with American households, selling as many as 800,000 units by the 1970s. We couldn’t find a patent for Stephen’s original invention but Weber-Stephens Products, renamed after George Stephen bought ownership of the company, has built a portfolio of 192 U.S. patents according to patent analysis provided by Innography. Many of Weber’s patents list an Erich J. Schlosser as an inventor. Over the years, Weber has brought us the Flamenco, a 1960s grill-and-table unit as well as gas and electric varieties in the 1970s. As of 2013, Weber was leading the $2.5-billion American grill market with a 35 percent market share.
Gas companies are credited for the development of grills that use propane or natural gas as a fuel source. The 1939 World’s Fair in New York City saw the first gas grill that would eventually be developed for commercial release. The Broilburger industrial grill debuted that year by the Chicago Combustion Company would shrink in size and become 1954’s Lazy-Man, which used ceramic nuggets to spread the heat more evenly within the grill. The Chicago Combustion Company sold the basic model of the Lazy-Man for just under $60, although a luxury option with an adjoining cart was also available.
Technological developments would continue apace over the course of the next few decades. In 1974, American grilling stole a page from the cookbook of a WWII opponent when Ed Fisher, a WWII veteran who had been stationed in Japan, began selling oval-shaped kamado cookers from that country as a grill that came to be known as the Big Green Egg. Some of the kamado cookers available today can sustain temperatures of 900? for periods of more than 12 hours. The early 1980s saw the pioneering of infrared grilling thanks to the advances made by Bill Best, who would go on to establish TEC Infrared Grills. The use of ceramic tiles to conduct heat allowed for a much higher direct temperature for searing meats; they also reached a proper cooking temperature faster than charcoal or even propane gas grills.
In the 1990s, the American consumer was presented with an indoor grilling appliance which ended up being tremendously popular and commercially successful. First released in 1994, the George Foreman Grill has sold more than 100 million units as of August 2010. The grill, designed with slanted grooves for draining away fat while cooking on a heated grill assembly, has sold so well that it has reportedly earned its sponsor up to $200 million in royalties, a much greater sum than the fighter earned during his professional boxing career.
The near future of barbecue grill development figures to be pretty exciting. Grill equipment innovator Lynx markets a number of SmartGrill models which are voice activated, compatible with smartphone apps and include temperature sensors so that a user can check an iPhone or Android device to get a sense of how well the meat is cooking. Solar-powered grills are today widely available. Backyard barbecuers can even find robotic accessories like the Grillbot, a cleaning robot which is designed to take all the manual labor out of scrubbing the grilling grate clean.