“Barbecue may not be the road to world peace, but it’s a start.” – Anthony Bourdain
Barbecue is a versatile word. It can refer to an outdoor place to cook meat; to cooking meat; and can also reference a gathering of people for the purpose of serving meat cooked outdoors.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines barbecue as:
|n.||A grill, pit, or outdoor fireplace for roasting meat.|
|n.||A whole animal carcass or section thereof roasted or broiled over an open fire or on a spit.|
|n.||A social gathering, usually held outdoors, at which food is cooked over an open flame.|
Americans may be divided on many issues, but smoked brisket, ribs, pork, and chicken, have the magical ability to cause people to throw down their swords and shields, pick up a knife and fork, and sit down together. Especially men.
I suspect that this has been the case going back to the earliest days of mankind. Knowing men, within an hour of the first guy discovering how to make fire, the guy in the cave next door likely showed up with some pterodactyl steaks and a six pack of fermented swamp water.
My wife says that men haven’t changed much. My buddies and I still like dinosaur-sized steaks and fermented swamp water.
According to a May 2013 article in Discover Magazine, the first barbecue may have occurred in a cave in South Africa about a million years ago. Archaeologists were analyzing the soil near where ancient tools were found when they discovered that the guys who left the tools also knew how to make fire.
There is some controversy in the scientific community regarding the abilities of these ancient ancestors (likely Homo erectus) when it comes to knowing how to build a fire. Many experts feel that men who didn’t walk completely upright and had underdeveloped brains couldn’t possibly have made fire. But my buddies and I shoot holes in that theory.
My earliest memories of making fire were with my buddy, Doug. His parents lived out in the country and had a pond. When we were about 11, we decided during a sleepover at his house that we would camp out with nothing more than the bare minimums and live off the land for an evening.
After we hauled a battery-operated transistor radio, case of Coca-Cola, comic books, sleeping bags, fishing rod with a Zebco 33 reel, and Coleman Stove and lanterns to the pasture, we prepared to rough it.
The plan was to fish for our meals. But first, we had to make fire.
We remembered what we had learned in Cub Scouts as to how two sticks could be rubbed together to make a spark that would light tender, and then catch fire to the sticks we had gathered. After a brief discussion, we got out his mom’s Zippo and lit the fire.
We never caught any fish and eventually went in the house to eat sandwiches and chips in front of the console television.
Later when we were grown, Doug, myself, and several other friends, would gather at our own apartments and homes to cook outside. We used cheap charcoal grills from Gibson’s or Western Auto, and charcoal from the Piggly Wiggly to cook cheap hot dogs, hamburgers, or whatever else we could afford.
It was over these small grills that we stood around in a circle (think King of The Hill), told each other how to barbecue, and solved the world’s problems.
There’s just something about gathering around a fire and cooking meat that seems to bring down walls between people. I honestly don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely real. Especially between guys.
I’m not sure what vegetarians do to accomplish this same sense of togetherness. I guess you can grill tofu and drink wine you can’t pronounce, but I have no desire to try that.
As my buddies and I aged, we advanced to newer ways to cook outside. The methods of cooking outside weren’t new, but they were new to us.
After I got married, I bought a grill before I bought a stove. Arkla Gas used to sell grills. They would even install and finance them by putting an extra five or ten bucks extra on your bill until you paid it off.
Of course, this benefitted the gas company. The more grills they sold, the more gas they sold.
There was just something uptown about walking out your back door, opening and lighting a grill, and throwing some burgers on while you are your pals stood around and sipped swamp water.
The gas grill gave way to a Brinkmann Smoker. My buddy, Dennis showed me how to use pecan, oak, and hickory, to slow smoke a brisket, a rack of ribs, pork butt, whole chicken, or turkey. This takes a whole lot longer than a gas grill, and a whole lot more swamp water.
After a storm carried my Brinkmann off the patio and into retirement, I invested in a Big Green Egg.
The Egg is amazing. It’s large and it’s ceramic, which means it retains heat like an Italian brick pizza oven.
You know that Ronco guy who has the rotisserie oven, and says that you can, “Set it, and forget it”? Well, once you get an Egg to the temperature you want, you can set it, and forget it. Just a small bit of lump charcoal in the bottom of the Egg will cook a lot of meat for a very long time.
No more setting the alarm for 2 a.m. to get up and add more wood under a slow-cooking brisket.
It won’t be long before my buddies and their wives will be joining us for a birthday cook out. I’ll break out the Egg and raise a glass of fermented swamp water to our million-year-old ancestors for leading the way for men who have underdeveloped brains and don’t walk quite upright.
©2018 John Moore
John’s book, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now, is available on Amazon.
Email John at John@TheCountryWriter.com.