Not just cooking meats, it’s a way of life
Story by Kim Domick
Photos by Tom Hawley
Hungry carnivorous humans go way back. Scientists and historians feel primitive humans first tasted cooked meats when, by chance, an animal was killed in a forest fire.
According to Vince Staten, the author of Real Barbecue: “The story of barbecue is the story of America. Settlers arrive on great unspoiled continent. Discover wondrous riches, set them on fire and eat them.”
To the country that just loves to think it invented and discovered everything, alas America, you did not invent barbecue; but you certainly have spent decades perfecting it.
For those of us pompous enough to still think we are responsible for the art of grilled meats, homo erectus may have a bone to pick with you. Bones and tools dated to 200,000 years ago show burn marks around bone joints and slashes in the bone itself that give evidence that cave dwellers did know how to cook meats.
There are also fossil records of stone tools used for butchering meats, as well as the bones with corresponding markings on them from 2.5 million years ago.
It took a little longer (until the Paleolithic period) for humans to begin constructing crude hearths made from stones. These primitive cooking pits became integral to dwellings and focal points of homes. The word focal comes from the Latin word for fireplace (and they say Latin is a lost language). Fire, good; fire pit, better.
The Spanish conquistadors reported seeing Taino-Arawak natives of Hispaniola roasting, drying and smoking meats on wooden crates over a bed of coals. The word barbecue comes from the Taino word barabicu meaning “sacred fire pit.”
The gridiron, which is similar to modern-day grill grates, was developed during the Iron Age. Both “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” mentioned five-pronged forks to roast meats at outdoor feasts in ancient Greece.
Grills, grates and barbecue tools continued to advance in their designs as time went on. In the early 1950s, George Stephen, a welder at Webber Brother Metal Works, adapted materials that were being used to make buoys for the U.S. Coast Guard. He created a kettle-shaped grill which not only kept the ashes out of the cooking food, but also allowed users to control the temperature better.
The result was a better designed vessel for those sawdust briquettes people erroneously credit Henry Ford for inventing. Although he did not invent charcoal briquettes, he was at the center of their inspiration. Henry sponsored camping trips from 1915-1924, along with pals Thomas Edison (name dropper), naturalist John Burroughs and tire pioneer Harvey Firestone.
In 1919, a real estate agent from Michigan named Edward Kingsford joined his group. (see where this is going?) Ford and Kingsford were soon involved in a parts plant and a sawmill operation. Edward was thrifty and did not want to let the sawmill waste (stumps, branches and sawdust) go unused, so he used the process invented by Oregon chemist Orin Stafford, to make a lump of fuel from the wood-waste, mixed with tar and cornstarch.
Thomas Edison designed the briquette factory and Edward Kingsford ran it. They were not an instant hit, however, and it was not until the 1930s (when Ford marketed “picnic kits” that included a little portable grill and briquettes) people began using them for their outdoor cooking.
Today, 77 percent of American households have a grill or smoker. Forty-eight percent of those owners fire up their grills year-round, and 33 percent even use their grills when the temperature dips below freezing. Barbeque is not just food; it is a way of life.
People are crazy for barbeque, including Henry M. Williams who took his right to barbecue to the Supreme Court in 1914, after he was fired for a two-day absence from his job at the Cotton Mills Company, in Columbia, S.C.
He had requested time off so he could cook barbecue. His request was denied, but he took off the two days anyway. He was fired. He then sued the company and won amid the Mill’s lawyers’ objections “knowing a man wanted days off to cook barbecue would skew the jury.” It was South Carolina after all, and they are serious about their barbeque.
When you have a discussion about barbeque, you will have as many different opinions as you do discussion participants. People will campaign, proselytize and debate the virtues of their favorite technique and tricks of the trade: wet rub, dry rub, marinated, injected, charcoal, gas, wood chips, sauced, naked, brined or un-brined, just to name a few.
When it comes to sauces, entire regions of the country come out en masse to cheer on their favorite flavor. In the Carolinas, the typical sauces are a vinegar-pepper or mustard-based sauce and a spicy tomato-based one. Their choice of meat is almost always pork. In Louisiana, barbecue has a heavy Cajun influence. In Texas they do barbeque BIG. Beef and pork are normally dry-rubbed with spices before grilling or smoking.
You can thank the Texas cowboys of the 1800s for being resourceful while working on large Western cattle ranches. They began cooking the cheaper leftover cuts of meat, such as brisket…LONG AND SLOW. These meats were well-muscled and full of flavor, and were treated to a slow roast that brought out the best in them. (I’ve never met a smoked beef brisket I didn’t love.)
Memphis and Kansas City love barbecue so much they both claim to be the barbecue capital of America. Hipster foodies rank New York (of all places?) and Nashville in the top best barbecue cities in the nation.
You don’t have to travel across the country to be your own hipster foodie. You can be the grill master of your own home. Ribs, steaks, chops and burgers are just waiting for you. The season is upon us, and if you have to take some days off from work…so be it. If you get fired, at least you will have something to eat on your walk along the long, long road to the Supreme Court.
As the late Anthony Bourdain once said, “Barbecue may not be the road to world peace, but it’s a start.”
Spicy Baby Back Rib Paste
3 tbsp. ground cumin
1 tbsp. chili powder
2 tbsp. ground thyme
1 ½ tbsp. garlic powder
1 tbsp. ground celery seed
2 tsp. ground ginger
3 tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. red chili flakes
2 tsp. kosher salt
2 tbsp. dark brown sugar
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 cup strong black coffee
½ cup ketchup
2 tbsp. dark molasses
4 beef bouillon cubes
1 1/8 tsp. liquid smoke
Add all the dry ingredients together in a bowl. In a saucepan, add the brown sugar, bouillon cubes and all the wet ingredients together and bring to a low simmer over medium heat. Once the bouillon cubes are dissolved, add the dry ingredients. Continue to simmer for 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for 8-10 minutes.
Take 2 racks of baby back ribs (5-6 pounds). Season with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Wrap each rack in foil and bake in a 325-degree oven for 1 hour. Remove from oven and slather on the barbecue sauce. Cook over indirect low heat with the bones facing the charcoal with the lid closed lid, for 15 minutes. Leave the vent halfway closed and flip the ribs and brush with more sauce. Cook another 10 minutes.