From its primitive origins to today’s high-tech modern low and slow smokers, here’s how BBQ cooking evolved from the very first day.
Homo erectus learns food tastes a lot better cooked on an open flame.
Around 2 million years ago, we find a fella named “Oog” (not his real name) who was a “Homo erectus,” an ‘upright man.’ The first of this species to stand up and not crawl on all fours.
He was by no means “strictly honorable or honest” in the modern meaning of the term upright. He was rather crude in his behavior and was known for grabbing his girlfriend (Oogla) by her hair and dragging her into his man cave.
Oog had just ripped a large piece of meat from the alligator he caught and offered it to Oogla, who said – “this is nasty,” and smacked Oog over the head with a rock. In anger, Oog tossed the meat out onto the ground.
Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck and caused a fire. The fire-roasted alligator meat sent smoke wafting through the air with an enticing aroma.
Unable to resist the delicious smell, the gator meat was eagerly consumed by Oogla and Oog, and this was the first BBQ! To this day, the memory of that smokey aroma is a primeval link that still triggers the same love for fire smoked meat.
As time went on, humans a little smarter than Oog found that raising their meat above the flames helped prevent it from burning. It also allowed the smoke to flavor their food and preserve it gradually. The available materials for doing this before there was metal was wood.
This is seen in use with the indigenous peoples of North and South America. They used a wooden rack above the ground built over an open fire and called it “Barbacoa” to roast and smoke meat.
A Spanish explorer learned about this method from the Taíno people in the Arawak-speaking Caribbean he was visiting and wrote about it. Returning to Spain, his writings ostensibly became the source of our now used term “Barbecue.”
It doesn’t really matter where the term we now use for BBQ comes from. What matters is – how it is prepared. No one likes tough meat, so to make tough meat tender, it needs to be cooked on a low heat for two hours or more. The essential factor behind this is controlling the fire, its heat, and smoke.
The simplest and most ancient cooking method used to do this is a pit in the ground. By digging a pit and letting a fire burn down into a bed of hot coals, meat could be added and covered with leaves or other natural materials.
Slowly steaming and smoking in the ground, the meat becomes tender and delicious. BBQ is traditionally done this way in Mexico and is called Barbacoa because of the Spanish learning the term from the Taíno people.
Instead of digging a hole in the ground, the method has evolved to build a box to contain the fire made of stone or now metal. So, you see why they call someone a “pitmaster.” The whole idea is to contain the fire, so it is controlled in such a way as to cook the meat according to its needs.
Let’s distinguish this method of containing the fire from cooking on an open flame, which is then called “grilling.”
The Charcoal Briquette
If you’re cooking in a large low and slow smoker, you will want to use wood like CCBBQ does with Max Woodruff. But when cooking on a smaller BBQ grill as you would in your backyard, it is easier to use charcoal. Now for thousands of years, people have been making charcoal, but it takes a lot of work and time.
One advance in the evolution of BBQing is the invention of the charcoal briquette. In 1897 a gentleman named Zwoyer patented a process for making the charcoal briquettes many people use today. Sawdust left over from the milling of wood is mixed into a binding agent and formed into uniform blocks, and fired in an oxygen-free furnace.
Now you can just go to a store and buy a bag of those neat little blocks with rounded corners and fire up the grill without having to chop down a tree!
The gas grill
In the 1930s, a new way to BBQ was introduced, and that was the gas grill. Using permanent coals known as lava rock, one didn’t need to light wood or coals to cook. Easy to control the temperature, faster cooking, and convenience are some of the advantages of this BBQ innovation. However, when it comes to the wonderful smoke flavor that most BBQ lovers enjoy, gas grills don’t make smoke.
Today’s BBQ Grill
The world of BBQ really evolved when metal became available. It was the Romans who first used a “gridiron,” a metal framework that could be placed over a fire to provide a surface to cook on (grill). In the industrial age, modern humans, with the ability to shape metal into any form, created BBQ devices that took grills to a new level.
Now BBQs can use propane, natural gas, and electricity for fuel. Modern wood pellets and charcoal briquettes also are a choice. With almost unlimited design options using metal and options for fuel, there are hundreds of different types of equipment for a BBQ.
Texas-style BBQ in Gilbert, AZ
Regardless of what is used to BBQ, whether a modern fancy BBQ grill with all the bells and whistles or a simple charcoal grill, it can be the best you ever had. It is the whole experience of sharing with your family and friends, that primal experience that Oog and Oogla had so very long ago.
Whether a big cut of meat or simply grilling some sausages and burgers, cooking over a natural flame and getting the food infused with the smoke really makes for great tasting food. We invite all upright hominins to come and check out the evolution of Texas-style BBQ at Caldwell County BBQ!