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How the Portable Grill Turned Barbecue Into a Backyard Tradition Across America

In “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America,” author Jim Auchmutey explains the origins of home grilling

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Caucasian man cooking meat on barbecue in yard Getty Images/Tetra images RF

As the title implies, Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America outlines barbecue’s long history in this country, from the barbacoa European settlers encountered, to the first Kansas City barbecue restaurants, through to its prominent place in today’s popular food culture. The book is a companion to the “Barbecue Nation” exhibit currently on display at the Atlanta History Center, and like a museum exhibition, it is highly visual, including advertisements and newspaper excerpts that illustrate America’s evolving relationship to cooking meat over fire. In this excerpt, Auchmutey explains how the advent of the portable grill turned barbecue from an exclusively Southern tradition into a backyard ritual all over America. — Monica Burton

The cover of Smokelore
Smokelore hits shelves June 1 and can be preordered on Amazon and at Indiebound.

Barbecue was too good a thing to remain the property of southerners, Texans, and people in a few other pockets of the country. During the suburban housing upsurge after World War II, a domesticated version of the old hickory pit spread across the land and became a familiar part of family life in America. It didn’t require digging a trench in the yard, only some basic building materials. The movement didn’t start in the South or any of the other barbecue heartlands; it started, like so many lifestyle fashions, in California.

The Pacific Coast has its own history of grilling and smoking derived from indigenous peoples, Mexican ranches, and campfire cooking in the cowboy way. One publication married that heritage to home entertaining and has promoted it for more than a century. The Southern Pacific railroad founded Sunset magazine in 1898 to tout the West as a tourist destination and as a safe and pleasant place to live. The magazine ran its first barbecue story in 1911 with instructions for a dish that sounds inspired by Mexican barbacoa: Beef a la Californienne, or pit-cooked bulls’ heads. Hundreds of grilling articles followed, usually involving more mainstream foods, but magazine recipes are not where Sunset made its greatest impact on the evolution of outdoor cooking. That happened in 1938 when the publication brought out what is widely considered the first book exclusively about barbecue.

Sunset’s Barbecue Book looks like it was carved from redwood. The early editions are covered front and back with rectangles of grained wood, and they have handsome woodcut illustrations inside continuing the rustic theme. The editors evidently felt a need to introduce the subject to readers because there’s an asterisk after the first mention of the word in the title and this explanatory footnote: “The noun ‘barbecue’ is defined in the dictionary as ‘a social entertainment of many people, usually in the open air, at which one or more large animals are roasted or broiled.’ Through common usage, however, the word has also come to mean the structure — fireplace or stove — on which any sort of outdoor cooking is done. We use the word this way throughout this book. It seems simpler all around not to argue about it.”

Sunset took that part about the structure very seriously. In the 1945 repackaging of the book, the first seventy-one pages were devoted to building and using barbecue pits, in elegantly detailed line drawings complete with curlicues of smoke rising from the chimneys. The recipes and suggested menus take up less than a fourth of the volume. Grilled steaks and seafood dominate the fare, little of which would be called barbecue in Texas or North Carolina.

Yet here was a California-based magazine proudly claiming the word “barbecue” for the Left Coast and its bounty of foods. “Why is it that practically everybody in the West has a barbecue, is planning to have a barbecue, or wishes he had one?” the book begins, going on to suggest that everybody wanted to eat outside because of the agreeable climate, not some ancient tradition transplanted from the East. Brick and stone pits like the ones in Sunset were the common image of backyard barbecue from the 1930s into the 1950s. They were all the rage during the early Baby Boom years, but they soon seemed dated when a more convenient mode of cooking came along.

Boys’ Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America, ran an article about barbecue in 1941 that gives an idea of the general knowledge about cooking out just before everything changed. Once again, the author feels obliged to define barbecue and throws in an explainer about charcoal being a type of “soft coal.” He mentions charcoal “broilers” — he doesn’t call them grills — but seems to think that cast-iron braziers of that sort were too expensive to seriously consider, so he offers instructions for cooking over open fires on spits or griddles. Back in those days, there weren’t many options for barbecuers who didn’t want to dig a hole, build a pit, or devise their own cookers, often with an old oil drum. One of the first portable grills, appearing during the 1930s, came from an unlikely source. The Ford Motor Company, which was making charcoal with wood scraps left over from its manufacturing process, sold a picnic set at its dealerships that included a small grill and a bag of charcoal so drivers could camp and cook out during their travels.

But the portable grill didn’t really come into its own until after World War II. A number of companies were dabbling in outdoor cookers; two stand out for their innovations.

One of the pioneers, fittingly, was an army veteran from Tulsa, Grant Hastings, who had fantasized about the barbecued ribs back home while serving as an artillery forward observer in combat campaigns in Africa and Europe. After he returned to Oklahoma, he sketched out a plan for the cooker of his dreams and went into business with a partner, Gus Baker. The Hasty-Bake Charcoal Oven came out in 1948; the company, still in business, claims that it was the first grill with wheels, a hood, and a firebox that allowed for cooking over indirect heat. The people at Char-Broil, in Columbus, Georgia, believe that they made the first portable backyard grill. The company traces its history to an ironworks that manufactured cannons for the Confederacy during the Civil War. By the 1940s, its longtime business of making cast-iron farm implements and heaters and stoves was collapsing. Needing a new product, employees designed a charcoal grill that looked like an oil drum cooker mounted on a single wheel. The Char-Broil Wheelbarrow debuted in 1948 and led the old ironworks into a new future in which it became the second biggest seller of grills in America (and the leader in the category of gas grills).

The most familiar early cooker came from Weber-Stephen Products of Palatine, Illinois. George Stephen, a welder at the Weber Brothers Metal Works in Chicago, liked to cook out but wasn’t happy with the open brick pit at his home because he couldn’t control the heat or the smoke enough for his liking. The metal works made buoys for use on the Great Lakes. Stephen cut one of them in half, attached legs, and added a domed lid with vents to regulate heat and smoke. When George’s Barbecue Kettle came out in 1952, it looked a bit homely, like a modified buoy. Redesigned and renamed four years later, the Weber Kettle went on to become such an icon that many people erroneously assume it was the first backyard grill. It remains by far the top-selling charcoal cooker in the world.

Even as Weber and others were conquering the American patio, technology was already changing outdoor cooking. Gas grills had been around since the 1930s but were used mainly in restaurants. The first portable models were marketed in the mid-1950s by CharmGlow Products of Antioch, Ohio; Falcon Manufacturing of Dallas; and the Chicago Combustion Corporation, which later rebranded itself under the more descriptive name LazyMan. Many of the early gas grills were promoted by natural gas suppliers, such as Arkla, the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company, and were permanent installations hooked up to fixed lines. As gas grills caught on, propane tanks became the dominant fuel source.

One of the curious success stories in backyard cooking is the Big Green Egg. The company’s founder, Ed Fisher, grew intrigued with Asian rice cookers — kamados — when he was serving overseas with the U.S. Navy. He adapted the concept for a heavy ceramic barbecue grill which more or less named itself because it was big, colored a vivid green, and shaped like an egg. After opening shop in Atlanta during the mid-1970s, the Big Green Egg gathered a cult following who inevitably called themselves Eggheads and inspired several other competitors who make kamado cookers.

Seven decades after the first portable backyard grill was fired up, the variety of outdoor cooking equipment is breathtaking. Barbecuers can choose from inexpensive charcoal grills, propane gas carts, infrared cookers, electric and wood-pellet smokers, built-in outdoor kitchens, trailer-mounted hardwood-fueled rigs, and everything in between, costing anywhere from thirty dollars to thousands. Even with all the choices, humble charcoal and gas grills still command the almost $1.5 billion U.S. market.

In the 1990s, sales of gas models passed charcoal and stayed ahead, taking barbecue a little farther from its hardwood beginnings. Americans respect the past, but convenience usually wins out.

Excerpted from Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America. Jim Auchmutey, University of Georgia Press, 2019.