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Made in America for
Keepers of the Flame Worldwide

Feb 17

How Our Favorite Way to Cook May Have Helped Make Us Human

The Barbeque That Made Us


So, what do you think about when someone mentions the word “barbeque” or “backyard grilling?” Do you think about the smell of grilling meat? Do you remember the sizzle and the smoke whetting your appetite? Maybe you think about the good times you’ve had at a barbeque. You remember the laughs around the grill and the joy of sitting down to a meal with close friends and family. Perhaps, you think about the fun of cooking and eating in the great outdoors.

The point is that all of the things associated with a barbeque are positive. A barbeque is a festive event. It’s a fun time. It’s an excuse to relax, enjoy the sun and have a cold one. It is good food and good company. In short, a barbeque is a good thing. Yet, why are we so attracted to cooking, eating and socializing outdoors?

A lot of people would answer that question by stating that barbequing is a part of the American way of life. It’s just something we, as a people, do. These people might point out that they have been barbequing all their lives. They would tell you that they learned to barbeque from their fathers and grew up attending picnics and parties where the outdoor grill was the center of the fun. You know what? They would be right.

Modern barbequing/grilling is a uniquely American pastime.

There’s also no doubt that Americans love to barbeque, as these industry statistics show. In 2013, the barbeque grill industry shipped over 13 million new grills to American households. Of these grills, eight million were gas and nearly six million were charcoal. Electric grills accounted for only a small percentage of new grills sold, but the number of electric grills shipped hit an all-time high.

Overall, over eighty percent of American households own an outdoor grill. Of the people that do own a grill, fifty-one percent have a gas grill, forty-one percent have a charcoal grill and eight percent have an electric grill.

Nearly all grill owners reported that they had used their grills at least once in the previous year. Sixty percent reported that they barbeque year round, no matter the weather. The traditional summer holidays are the most popular times to barbeque, with the Fourth of July leading the pack. However, winter holiday barbequing showed a sharp rise in popularity, with Super Bowl Sunday taking the prize for most popular.

Both gas and charcoal grill owners entertain guests with a barbecue, averaging twelve barbeque parties per year. All grill owners felt that their grilling area was a functional food preparation area, as well as a place to rest and relax. We’re hoping as people learn about how fast FiAir can get charcoal to cooking temperature, the debate between Charcoal vs. Gas might very well lean in the direction of Charcoal. But FiAir is NOT what this story is about.

So, what does all this data show?

Well, it certainly does show that grilling is a popular American activity, one that has become ingrained in our social consciousness. The smell of a charcoal grill is an iconic symbol of an American summer, right up there with the sound of a lawnmower and the smell of freshly mown grass. The thing is that while the United States can claim to enjoy barbecuing, perhaps more than any other country, it cannot claim that a barbeque is a uniquely American activity.

You see, barbequing is a uniquely human activity, one that has been around for a very, very long time. Humans have long enjoyed the taste and smell of barbecued food. The idea of cooking and smoking meat over an open fire did not originate in the United States. Instead, that idea originated far back in time, long before the idea of states and nations and even cultures had been conceptualized.

How far back in time?

Well, at some point over a million years ago, a group of our ancestors stumbled through the remains of a forest that had recently caught fire. Lightening, then as now, was responsible for igniting forest fires. Perhaps, this very group had fled this fire and was now returning to what was left of their territorial area. As they walked through the still smoldering stumps and trunks they may have come upon the charred remains of a larger animal, maybe a boar or wild pig.

Our ancestors were hunter gatherers. This meant that they had to be opportunists when it came to food. If a food source showed up, you stopped and ate, especially when the source was particularly large and potentially nutritious.

As the group gathered around the fire cooked animal, a delicious scent would have assailed them. The charred fat and muscle smelled good. The meat would have still been warm, since a forest fire will actually raise the temperature of the soil enough to roast anything resting in the dirt. As they tore chunks of meat from the carcass, the group would have realized that the cooked protein not only smelled good, it tasted good. Unlike the raw meat they were used to, this cooked meat was easier to bite, chew and swallow. It also left them feeling fuller with less, since the semi-melted fat was, essentially pre-digested and readily absorbed by the gut.

At some point during or after this impromptu feast, the penny dropped and the light bulb lit. If you have fire, you have better tasting food that’s better for you and those around you. Learning how to obtain and control fire became a priority.

Now, this is just a hypothesis. The deliciousness and higher nutrition value of cooked food may not have led to the control of fire. Fire is also a source of heat for human comfort. In the dark, the light of a fire provides protection from predators and other dangers. With fire, you can sleep on the ground or in a cave in relative safety. Any and all of these advantages could as easily have given rise to the desire to tame fire as cooked food. In the end however, what does matter is that fire was tamed and controlled by one group of proto-humans and the ability to use fire, in turn, led to fire cooked food.

So, what does any of this have to do with barbecuing and grilling?

Well, the group that first tamed fire was also the first group to start getting more nutrition out of their food. This additional food energy gave that group a distinct advantage on a day to day basis. Because they were better fed, they became more efficient hunter gatherers. Because they were satisfied with less, they could devote less time to food gathering and more time to other pursuits. Because cooked food kept longer than raw food, they were better able to get through lean times when food was scarce.

Over time, these advantages began to have an evolutionary impact. Fire users didn’t have to climb trees at night to sleep, so their arms became more proportional to their bodies. Fire users also didn’t need large teeth and jaws to tear, crush and grind raw food, so their skulls became more streamlined with a more modern human look. Finally, fire users had more free time and more food energy, so their brain capacity grew and enlarged.

Our hypothetical group that discovered the impromptu barbecue in the remains of a burnt forest would have been members of a species known as Homo habilis. H. habilis is regarded as the first human. Although they walked upright, they still looked different than us. Also, their brain capacity was not much larger than their immediate predecessors, the very first upright apes – Australopithecus. In short, Homo habilis wasn’t us, not even close.

Something amazing happened to change all this just over a million years ago, right around the time of our hypothetical barbecue. A new species arose, seemingly out of nowhere. This new species, known as Homo erectus, was more streamlined than Homo habilis. The skull was more modern will smaller teeth and jaws. The arms were proportional. Most importantly, H. erectus had a brain that was twice the size of H. habilis. This was a thinking being who used fire and likely used language.

So where did Homo erectus come from and why did they arise so abruptly?

The answer is, in all likelihood, fire. Somewhere along the way, a group of Homo habilis had learned how to control and use fire to their advantage. This advantage, as we have discussed, allowed them to develop much more rapidly. In essence, the use of fire changed these H. habilis into something different, something the world had never seen before – a cognitive and rational creature.

Homo erectus was a child of fire and, through them, so are we. This fire, that we still gather around and cook over, allowed us to develop into a better and more advanced state. Fire became the ultimate tool and cooking over a fire became the ultimate advantage. Without this tool there would be no advantage and without the advantage there would be no us. So, the next time you gather around the grill to enjoy the food and the company, remember that humans have been doing this for over a million years. The barbecue made us what we are.

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