Natural History of the Kitchen: The Barbecue


Photograph: David Robert Wright

Welcome to Natural History of the Kitchen, by EMD's Stephanie Butler. Each week, Stephanie explores the background of an appliance, gadget or product that helped to make cooking what it is today. This week: Barbecues.

It's a noun, a verb, and an adjective. There are multiple ways to spell it. There are competitions devoted to it, whole shelves in bookstores focusing on it, and famous chefs who have dedicated careers to perfecting it. It's barbecue, of course, and it's our focus this week in Natural History of the Kitchen. So just in time for cookout weather, here's a primer on everything 'cue-related. Throw another prawn on the barbie and settle in for a spell.

Barbecue, Bar-b-que, BBQ

It's common belief that the word "barbecue" comes from the West Indian word barbacoa, which was the term for the shallow pits used by native peoples to slow cook meat. But there's also a contingent that believes "barbecue" came from a French phrase, "barbe a queue", meaning "beard to tail." Then there's the small yet vocal North Carolina group who think the word came from restaurants advertising exactly what they had to offer – bar, beer, cue (as in pool). Etymology aside, the word has evolved to describe not only the means by which the food is cooked, but also the food itself, and events at which the food is served. For the purposes of narrowing down an imposingly large subject, we'll be talking here about the barbecue grill.

grill2In 1952, Weber Brothers metalworker George Stephen was growing frustrated with his backyard grill. In the early 50s the brazier-type grill was the most popular, but its design hadn't evolved past the Flintstone era. For instance, Stephen's brazier didn't have a lid, which didn't allow for much heat control, and led to many a burned steak. Stephen knew that a lid would trap heat and cook more efficiently, so he welded a simple kettle grill very similar to the models we know and love today. He took his grill on the road, selling his "Sputnik" grill at hardware stores, becoming so successful he bought out the Weber company in the late 50s. [Photograph: Weber Grills]

Gas grills first appeared in 1962, when engineers at the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company were searching for new ways to sell natural gas to their customers. Now fueled by propane, gas grills are the top sellers in the US market. This doesn't mean, though, that the gas vs. charcoal debate is over. Far from it, in fact: there are entire books and websites dedicated to settling the question once and for all. Gas offers convenience and control, and an easier clean up. Charcoal burns much hotter than the majority of gas grills on the market: it routinely burns at 500 degrees and up in home grills where gas normally tops out at about 450. Purists also claim it imparts a better, smokier taste to the meat. These same folks debate about natural charcoal vs. briquettes, use of lighter fluid – the list goes on and on.

grill3 And what better venue to have these debates than at a barbecue society meeting? Yup, they exist, and they cover the country like sauce on a rib. Looking for grill-related guidance amongst other lapsed, pork-loving Semitics? Look no further than Need a gift to impress your nearest and dearest barbeque fanatic? Yes, Virginia, there is a Barbecue Sauce of the Month Club. If you aren't doing anything the second week in May, you might want to take a trip to Memphis for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Contestants bring their own grills and smokers to compete for $100,000 in prize money. That's a lot of pulled pork. [Photograph: Weber Grills]

James Beard's Grilled Hamburger

To finish up this week's barbecue adventure, a simple recipe from a man who literally wrote the book on barbecue. Though now out of print, James Beard's New Barbecue Cookbook and Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery are two fantastic books by an author at the top of his game. Beard's hamburger recipe is more involved than just shaping a patty and throwing it on a grill, but is worth every extra bit of effort.

  • 2 pounds ground chuck or round with a minimum of fat
  • 3 tablespoons grated onion
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 2 teaspoons heavy cream

Pat the meat into a rather flat cake. Grate the onion directly into the center. Add the salt and pepper and carefully spoon the heavy cream into it. Blend well with the hands and form into one large cake or 4 smaller cakes. If you want the meat rare, have the cakes about 1 1/2 inches thick.

When grill is quite hot, add the meat and cook to your favorite state of doneness. Turn once or twice during the cooking process. Add salt and pepper to taste.

If you make one large cake, use two very wide spatulas to handle the difficult job of turning it. Serve at once, along with sautéed potatoes and a tomato and onion salad.

Stephanie Butler

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Comment Feed

  1. AVelez

    Maybe if you dig a little deeper you'll find out that the technique, name and process is originally from my ancestors; the taino indians from the Caribbean.

  2. Detective Freamon's Tweedy Impertinence

    You should have just called this installment Grills. Barbecue is slow and low cooking in a smoker.

  3. lps

    Without any intention to offend, burning hamburguers in the fire on a grill is not a barbeque. As examples of real barbequeues I can mention the argentine and uruguayan Asado and the brazilian Churrasco.

  4. Stupendo

    Although not as ubiquitous as the Weber Kettle, Hasty-Bake introduced the first model with a lid in 1948.

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