Story and Recipes by Terese Allen, Food Editor
If ever there was a hero of the ages, it was a certain prehistoric hunter, the first to retrieve a strip of raw meat he had accidentally dropped into a bonfire. Risking scorched fingers and the derision of his fellow companions, our friend—let’s call him Mr. Cro Magnon--snatched the bit of mastodon from the flames, and considered it. “Ugh! Are you going to eat that? It’s all brown and singed!” said one of the cavemen. “Yeah, but you ate all the good stuff already,” said Cro. “Plus it smells yummy.” So he bit in, and to his delight the flesh was delicious--crusty on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside, seasoned with the flavor of outdoor smoke.
Voila! cooking was born.
Of course, it’s just as likely that it was a primitive woman who discovered how tasty food can be when submitted to the flame--a hungry bush lady, perhaps, who, rummaging through the embers of a forest fire, relished humankind’s original taste of roasted potato.
We’ll probably never know how or when cooking actually started, but my guess is that the news spread fast. (Think of your reaction when you catch a whiff of a ribeye grilling in your neighbor’s backyard, and you’ll know what I mean.) So did the types of cooking; no doubt things moved quickly from that first simple charring of raw meat to coating food with spices and juice-marinades before heating them. Then it was on to hot-stone griddles and baking leaf-wrapped foods in pits. When cooks employed cookware—turtle shells, deer skins, hand-hewn pots—they added all manner of stews and one-dish meals to their menus. With fire-resistant earthenware vessels, deep-frying became the rage.
Eventually brick hearths and woodstoves brought most cooking indoors, expanding our culinary repertoire even further, but we’ve never lost that primal craving for foods prepared al fresco. Indeed, deep tradition connects ancient outdoor feasts with today’s back deck grill parties and campside meals.
Humans abandoned open-air fires for the kitchen largely because of convenience (and the weather, naturally), but we never completely gave up outdoor cooking, especially at clambakes, barbecues, fish boils, and other large group gatherings. That’s because, as Felipe Fernández-Armesto wrote in Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food, “Once fire became manageable it inevitably bound communities together, [since] tending the flame required division of labor and shared effort. Cooking…socialized eating by making it an activity practiced in a fixed place at a fixed time by of community of eaters. When fire and food combined…an almost irresistible focus was created for communal life.”
To be sure, meals prepared outside have been bringing people together ever since Cro said, “Hey, try this! Want to help me make some more?” Once urban life became common, however, it was mostly shepherds and campers who braved the elements for their daily fare. Until suburbia happened, that is. In the mid-20th century, when families moved out of the cities and into homes with spacious backyards, grilling came back with a vengeance. No longer an infrequent pleasure at the local park or beach, cooking over coals once again became an everyday thing.
And why not? Let’s face it, modern-day TV dinners zapped in the microwave have nothing on chicken mesquite-roasted on a rotisserie grill. Wieners boiled on an infrared range can’t compare to hot dogs stick-roasted over the trimmings from an apple tree.
Factors like aroma have much to do with our age-old passion for food cooked in the open air. Dinner is naturally enhanced when the smells of fire-roasted red peppers and autumn leaves crushed underfoot combine, or when steam from a lobster boil blends with a salty sea breeze. Even dehydrated beef stew reconstituted over a portable burner tastes great if you eat it while on a backpack trip, watching night spill like plum wine down a mountainside.
Americans in particular love to cook out. According to grilling gurus Cheryl and Bill Jamison, in The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking and Entertaining (William Morrow, 2006), almost three-quarters of Americans “prefer their backyards, patios, or balconies to their kitchens as the place to make meals.” Nearly one-third of us boast two or more grills, smokers, deep-fryers and other kinds of outdoor cooking equipment, they add. And, “more than half of us keep the fires burning all year, even for traditional occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.”
Of course, it’s basic. We crave the primal savor and easy-going, elemental fun of outdoor cooking because it happens right where we belong: in nature.
Salad green, sunset orange, wine red—the colors in this presentation make it as pleasurable to look at as it is to eat.
Beer tenderizes and adds a pleasant tang to marinated pork chops without being as biting as lemon juice.
Seasoned with a dry rub of spices and aromatic ginger and garlic, these steaks gain flavor the longer they’re marinated.
Pizza lovers, get ready for the unparalleled crispy-crunchyness of a grilled pizza!
Traditional favorites are just the beginning. If you let regional crops and products be your inspiration, burger and hot dog variations have no bounds.