by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator
With summer in full swing, it’s time to break out the grill and do some outdoor cooking. While most folks are pondering what to throw on the grill, I of course am looking at the scientific and historical nature of this activity.
Some may argue that the act of cooking outdoors goes back to the first guy that created fire, only to burn his thumb, put it in his mouth and discover that it tasted better. Going back this far may take a little longer than we have, so instead let’s look at some of the possible origins of the term, barbeque. Whether you spell it out, or shorten it to the very American Bar-B-Q, it’s still a fairly odd sounding word – so, where did it originate?
Like many words, its etymology is up for debate, but here’s one version of its introduction into current usage. The custom of slow cooking over low heat was known as bucan on the island of Hispaniola, through consonant migration as the word was introduced into different cultures the phrase shifted to, barbacan, barbacoa and eventually barbeque.
Some theories have the modern barbeque coming from the French, barbe meaning whiskers and queue which translates to tail, the combined barbe a queue literally translating to mean from whiskers to tail, the part of the animal usually cooked over the fire pit. Interestingly, most word scholars disagree with this account. The French did however use the original bucan to describe the criminals that escaped to Hispaniola as buccaneers, so named for the style of cooking popular to the region. It wouldn’t take long before the phrase buccaneer was synonymous with pirate.
Another item associated with outdoor cooking is charcoal, which brings us to the scientific part. Charcoal is created in a process known as pyrolysis, the technical term for heating wood or other organic material in the absence of oxygen. What this slow, low temperature burn creates is a rather impure variety of carbon that is lightweight, porous, and perfect for cooking a variety of meats. Perhaps further explaining its importance to certain members of the population, charcoal is also a key component of gunpowder and fireworks. (We’re men, we like to cook big slabs of meat and blow stuff up. Honestly, we can’t help it.)
While charcoal has been around for centuries, the briquette form with which we’re most familiar was patented in 1897 by Pennsylvania inventor, Ellsworth Zwoyer. While Zwoyer opened two plants to manufacture his charcoal briquettes, national distribution was an issue. In the 1920s this problem was partly solved by Henry Ford and his Model-T automobile. Ford, never one to waste an opportunity, learned that he could produce charcoal briquettes from the wood scraps left behind after making certain parts for his popular vehicle.
The Kingsford Company was formed when E.G. Kingsford, a relative of Ford’s, brokered the site selection for Ford’s new charcoal manufacturing plant. The company, originally called Ford Charcoal, was renamed Kingsford Charcoal in his honor. For many years, Kingsford Charcoal was only available at Ford automobile dealerships.
While barbeques are great ways to bring family and friends together, they can occasionally unite entire towns. Such was the case on Wednesday, September 29, 1909 when Fort Collins celebrated the first annual Lamb Day. The event kicked off with the ringing of the town bell at noon and ended with 8,500 pounds of lamb, 500 pounds of beef, 3,200 loaves of bread, 1,000 gallons of coffee, and two barrels of pickles being served to over 10,000 townsfolk and tourists.
People had come from as far away as Chicago and the West Coast to enjoy the fattened barbequed lambs that were roasted in an enormous pit. How big was it? Believe it or not, the cooking area of the pit ran the length of an entire city block. College students and local butchers stood on their feet for many hours serving the donated food, until the last person in line filled their plate.
Why Lamb Day? Well, in 1889, lamb finishing (or fattening) became one of the most profitable agricultural ventures in Fort Collins. The sheep grazed on the vast, open lands of the region, flourishing in the mild climate. Initially, farmers who raised lambs finished them on local alfalfa and corn. However, around the turn of the 20th century, the boom of the sugar beet industry in the region produced byproducts in the form of beet tops and beet pulp ready made for use as sheep feed. By 1904, over 400,000 sheep from the Fort Collins district were shipped to Chicago and Omaha, making Fort Collins an important player in the sheep industry.
Food for thought the next time you fire up the grill.
Images below courtesy of the Local History Archive