My father invented barbecue.
I was born and raised in the mountains of the West. We hunted, camped, and fished. Trout caught from lakes or streams were quickly cleaned and suspended over a campfire to cook. We cooked burgers, hot dogs, marshmallows, and all those things that tended to make their way over live fires. A thirties era Coleman camp stove cooked breakfasts of bacon, eggs, and hash browns, and at an early age, I mastered making toast over that ever present campfire. Outdoor cooking wasn’t anything terribly unique. It was just something you did in those days and in those places.
My earliest memory of a backyard grill was one of those brazier style charcoal units. It was rusted and red, round and just deep enough to hold a couple layers of charcoal. The cooking grate spun around to lift and lower it over the fire. I remember lighter fluid and watching it whoosh with flames on hot summer days. I remember the burgers and dogs and though I know there were steaks, I didn’t get one. I was little and hot dogs were about the best thing you could eat.
When I was about six our neighbor to the back moved away. Despite the fact that we lived nearly a thousand miles from the ocean, he was an active duty Commander in the Navy. He was an aviator and a couple of decades after he and his family move away I found out that he had been killed in a helicopter accident somewhere in Montana. Before being our neighbor, this man, whose name I don’t remember, had been stationed in Japan. As a high-ranking naval officer, I imagine he lived pretty well. When he moved, he left us something. It was big, incredibly heavy, green, and made of some kind of pottery. He had picked it up in Japan and smuggled it aboard an aircraft carrier to get it to the states. He had clout with the Navy, but getting a couple hundred pounds if big green pottery thingy across several thousand miles of ocean was probably more pull than he had officially.
Anyway it got here, he decided that he wasn’t going to take it with him on his new assignment and so when he moved away, he left it to us. Several older brothers worked to move it from the house in the back to a small concrete slab attached to the back of our house. That is where it would sit for the next decade before the pottery material disintegrated to a state that made it useless. It was during this decade, however, that my father invented barbecue.
We didn’t know what to call the strange green thing on the back porch. My parents called it a Hibachi. If there had been a name on it, perhaps stamped on one of the cast iron parts, it has rusted and worn away. Whatever it was, it did amazing things. I remember sneaking bacon out of the refrigerator on early mornings after a cookout and putting it on this “hibachi”. It would still be warm and with the vents open, it would heat up and while I played, the bacon would cook.
So we had, what I would come to know as a Kamado Grill, something equally good at hot and fast grill as it was at low and slow smoking. It also happened that we lived, in those days of my childhood, on a large piece of land that had once, a hundred years earlier been an orchard. There was a cherry tree in particular that features strongly in my childhood. It was considerably taller than our house and I spent much of my summer high in its branches. There were other cherry trees as well as peach, apricot, and apple, all venerable trees that shed branches in the winters and were seemingly always in need of pruning. This meant a large amount of wood, fruit wood for burning.
My father was extravagant with extravagant things and frugal with mundane things. He would order expensive liquors at restaurants, but when sugar prices surged in the seventies, he switched to honey in his coffee. He also, thought it foolish to spend money on charcoal if there was wood lying around the yard, so small branches were broken up to fuel the “hibachi”.
Of course, there were no instructions and in those days, no World Wide Web, to look for them. On the other hand, this style of grill is pretty intuitive when it comes to basic casts and Dad had little trouble working out its various nuances. Yes, fires were lit with lighter fluid. Perhaps this accelerated the disintegration of the ceramics, but this was how cookout fires were lit in those days, and no one questioned the benefits of good old hydrocarbons. So armed with one of the most versatile and advanced charcoal grills of all time, and nearly an acre of good fruit wood, my father explored.
It didn’t take him long to figure out that limiting the airflow, limited the temperature, and the steaks, burgers, and hot dogs began to be replaced by whole chicken, large roasts, and whatever else was a good price at the grocery store down the street. No, there were no pizzas on this grill. No bread got baked here, but large cuts of beef and pork were slowly roasted in a clean, fruit wood smoke until tender and delicious. By the time the firebox of our happy green “hibachi” has broken apart and the grill could no longer hold temperature, barbecue had been invented, the experiments were done, and a shiny new Weber Gas Grill showed up on the spreading deck that had been built under the vast cherry tree.
Years went by, and I didn’t give that old “hibachi” another thought, and while Dad’s experiments had been delicious, I had moved on to eating pizza and burgers with my friends, and he was busily working on the perfect Yorkshire pudding. In my college years, which I stretched out for as long and humanly possible, I got invited to spend a couple of weeks with a family friend at his house somewhere in the middle of Texas. This friend was a serious Texan. He believed that everything in Texas was, in fact, bigger and better, and I have never set him straight on his point (and don’t you bother arguing with me, opinions are my own and irrefutable). He had invited me to stay with him because he was hell-bent on sharing his love with his home state with anyone who would buy a plane ticket.
My friend, who then lived in a little town halfway between Austin and San Antonio, knew of my deprived upbringing in regards to Southern, particularly central Texas barbecue. It was a straight drive from the airport to a wooden building in the town of Fredericksburg, for a plate of smoked brisket, sausage, and all the usual sides. It was my first experience with real, traditional barbecue, and yet it was oddly familiar. The cuts were different, the seasonings were new, but the fundamentals were the same. I became interested in barbecue, but when I returned home I was on my own to explore in a virtual vacuum. Life went on. Occasionally I grilled and occasionally I explored smoke flavors, but it wasn’t a major part of my life.
Half a decade after my illuminating journey to Central Texas found me underemployed in the IT world. I had a powerful computer and unlimited internet access, which was a substantial benefit in the late nineties. I also had a large amount of time on my hands while I sat at a desk monitoring computer servers. It was in January of 1997 that I found a listing in Yahoo! jobs for a position with a new internet startup company, then call The Mining Company. Yes, a strange name. From the description, the duties seemed to be centered around doing some website management in the area of Barbecues & Grilling. I had been building websites for years and I knew something about grilling and barbecue, though not nearly as much as I was about to learn. I applied for the position and was hired. In April of that year, this startup went live and I was one of about 160 website managers up and running.
In those days, Yahoo! was the internet. They dominated and The Mining Company was there to turn Yahoo!’s automated directory (this is before Google and web search companies) into a human powered system that would get you right to where you needed to be. My task, as the Barbecues & Grilling “Guide” as to add deep links into the systems directory, annotating as I went, and to write an article weekly about the topic. Half a dozen articles into the process, I was searching out grilling books at the local library, trying to learn all the things I should have known before applying for the job. I learned as quickly as I could, but what I found out was that most people needed basic information about what kind of grill or smoker to buy. Things I knew very little about and since most grill makers in those days didn’t have websites, I spent hours at hardware, department, and patio stores asking questions and picking apart grill as much as the sales personnel would allow. Years passed.
As the Barbecue site I authored gained in popularity, ultimately becoming the most trafficked in the world, I gained influence across the industry. I have been invited to tour dozens of factories, attended the most prestigious cooking events, crossed the country and traveled around the world. If it has been cooked over a live fire, I have eaten it. I have cooked on $25,000 grills and $100,000 outdoor kitchens. I have also cooked on cobbled together apparatuses made of spare parts and welded together in barns and back alleys. I have cooked over every fuel imaginable. This ‘job’ has afforded me opportunities I would never have imagined. I also got to meet a lot of incredible people. As one of the very few ‘media’ people in barbecue, I have gotten to eat the barbecue that has won world championships and hang out with the people who make it.
It has been a strange and wonderful journey that I hope will never end.