Food history: backyard cookouts

Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and random days in October when you’re just so thrilled the weather is still warm – it’s time for backyard cookouts.

As close as it gets to a backyard cookout at my place. (We can’t have a grill.)

The ritual of cooking food outside over an open fire really started with the domestication of fire, about 500,000 years ago. But with backyard cookouts as we picture them, the concept really came about in the 1950s.

Two main events contributed to the beginning of backyard cookouts: the invention of the Weber grill, and World War II.

An entrepreneur named George Stephen was dissatisfied with the open brazier-style grills. So in 1952 he came up with a spherical grill with an actual top on it, that would effectively distribute heat and secure the flavor. This was the birth of the Weber grill.

At the same time, the war was ending and people were moving to the suburbs and enjoying more time with their families. The backyard used to be equated with labor and obligations – just one more thing to take care of. But the grill changed all of that.

With the grill, the backyard transformed into a place for relaxation, fun, and family time. It wasn’t associated with work anymore – the backyard was representative of status and accomplishments. The stuff you got because of the fact you worked so hard, and now you had the opportunity to actually step back and enjoy it.

Bonus: There was even adequate time for the husband and wife to get some time away from each other; he would park himself by the grill, living up to the meaning of family provider as he cooked his family’s food, while she would likely stay in the kitchen for awhile, making side dishes.

By the late 1950s, American companies were pumping out new gadgets, outdoor furniture, and more to coincide with the perfect afternoon with your family outside.

Admittedly, there is one group who got a bit of a head start on backyard grilling: colonists in the early 19th century, after having declared their independence from Britain.

Particularly in the Southeast, pigs and even entire oxen were pit-roasted and barbecued for hours. Folks celebrated the Fourth of July – not yet an official holiday – with these barbecues, which might have sparked the correlation today between summer holidays and backyard cookouts.

Of course, there is in fact a difference between barbecuing and grilling.

So next time you’re on your patio cooking delicious, fresh food over an open fire, give a little silent head nod to George Stephen, post-war happy people of the 1950s, and colonists from the early 1800s.