Where Did the Charcoal BBQ Come From?

Indigenous Cultures Have Been Roasting Meat in Pits and Open Grills for Centuries

Indigenous cultures used the sun first to preserve meat, but it would spoil easily and the bugs would get more than their fair share of the meal. Natives around the world discovered that building a fire under the meat would solve the bug issue and preserve the meat. A wood fire started in a pit was the accepted method to not only preserve meat but to roast it as well.

The name Barbeque or Barbecue is often written as BBQ. There is some confusion about the genesis of the word, but most historians believe the word comes from the Spanish word barbacoa. The Spanish found the Arawak Indians of the West Indies roasting meat using a wooden structure and the Spanish named that structure barbacoa. As time went on the act of grilling the meat was called barbacoa as well. Some historians believe the word barbeque is the English translation of that Spanish word, but others disagree since the Polynesians had been grilling meat slowly in pits for thousands of years and they used a word that resembled Barbie to describe that process.

The word Barbie is still the term used in Australia and New Zealand. The South Africans call this oldest culinary art Braai, and the French called the process barbe a queue, but now call it barbecue so there is still some debate about the origin of the word which was first used in 1697 by British buccaneer William Dampier. Whatever the origin of the word the process of grilling food on an open flame is the oldest method of cooking, and it’s probably the most popular way to prepare meat for a meal around the world.

Charcoal Briquettes Replaced Wood in the United States in the 20th Century

The design for charcoal briquettes was patented in 1897 by Ellsworth Zwoyer of Pennsylvania. At the end of World War I the Zwoyer Fuel Company built three charcoal briquette manufacturing plants, but the use of charcoal instead of wood for grilling didn’t catch on until the 1920s. E.G. Kingsford, a lumberman and a relative of Henry Ford, convinced Ford to make better use of the discarded wood scraps from his car manufacturing plant.

Kingsford and Ford knew Zwoyer and decided to use his patent to produce charcoal briquettes from the wood scraps. They used another assembly line in the auto plant and sold this new mixture of wood scraps and ground coal under the Ford brand in Ford dealerships. The response was slow at first, but charcoal briquettes were easier to use and they were cheap. The demand for charcoal grew and Kingsford and Ford built an assembly plant next to the Ford plant. After Kingsford’s death the charcoal company was named The Kingsford Company which is now a brand of the Clorox Company.

The popularity of charcoal briquette use is the result of George Stephen’s hemispherical grill design which was jokingly named the “Sputnik” by Stephen’s close friends. Stephen worked for Weber Brothers Metal Works as a welder. The company welded steel spheres together to make buoys. Stephen cut one of the buoys in half and designed a grill to fit it and then developed a metal dome shaped top and added metal legs. He took it home and tested it using charcoal briquettes and all his friends wanted to buy one. He formed a new company called Weber-Stephen Products Co. in 1952 and in a flash the charcoal grill became a household fixture.

Gas grills are a by-product of these early charcoal grills. The concept of using gas instead of charcoal was developed in the 1960s by Melton Lancaster and William Wepfer. They were researching new ways to sell gas for the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company and bought a charcoal grill and redesigned it in Wepfer’s garage.

The charcoal BBQ is still a popular way to cook in millions of homes around the world. Over one holiday weekend the Kingsford brand can sell over fifty five million pounds of charcoal. That’s a lot BBQ!

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