Photograph by Michael Nichols, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Kids, don't try this at home.
Photograph by Michael Nichols, Nat Geo Image Collection
The Plate

A Brief History of Cooking With Fire

For most of human history, over an open fire was the one and only way to cook a meal. People started cooking in this fashion nearly two million years ago, according to anthropologist Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Humanprobably, early on, by simply tossing a raw hunk of something into the flames and watching it sizzle.

This may make modern chefs wince, but, Wrangham argues, it was likely a giant evolutionary step for mankind, providing us not only with tastier dinners, but with the extra nutrition and surplus energy necessary for generating big brains (see What Makes Us Human? Cooking, Study Says).

By the Paleolithic era, 200,000 to 40,000 years ago, we were building primitive hearths in the form of a handful of stones in a circle—the sort kids today are taught to build in summer campand for the next many millennia such hearths, in various permutations, were the focal points of human homes. Our word focus—meaning the point at which all things come together—comes from the Latin for fireplace.

Until about 150 years ago, when the gas range came into common use, every household had a fireplace and every householder was obsessed with maintaining the kitchen fire. In the days before matches, if you didn’t keep the home fire continually burning, chances were you couldn’t start it up again. The medieval curfew—from couvre feu or fire cover—was a large metal lid used to cover the embers of the fire at night and keep them burning until morning. Nineteenth-century pioneers who woke up to find the ashes cold walked miles to borrow fire from their neighbors.

Starting a fire has never been an easy trick. No one knows how our prehistoric ancestors managed. They may have snatched burning branches from wildfires or generated sparks by rock-banging; some guess we may have acquired fire as a lucky off-shoot of chipping stone tools.

Otzi, the 5000-year-old Iceman discovered in 1991 by hikers in the Italian Alps, cautiously carried his fire along with him, in the form of embers wrapped in maple leaves and stored in a birchbark box. As back-up, he was also equipped with a fire-starting kit, consisting of iron pyrites, flint, and tinder fungus. The Neolithic technique seems to have involved grinding the fungus until it was fine and fluffy, then piling it in a mollusk shell, and striking sparks with the flint and pyrite until the tinder ignited. Tom Hanks would have given a lot for this while he was struggling to rub two sticks together in Cast Away.

Though an estimated three billion people worldwide still cook their meals over open fires, the closest most Americans get to the hands-on experience of fire-starting is the backyard barbecue grill. About 60 percent of barbecue grills sold these days are fueled with gas and so require no fire-starting skills at all. The rest are charcoal grills, usually fueled with charcoal briquettes, and traditionally ignited with a spritz of lighter fluid and a match. After the initial whoosh, the hopeful barbecuer waits until the coal-black briquettes turn ashy-gray, signaling the establishment of a heat-radiating bed of coals suitable for cooking hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken, pork ribs, and corn on the cob.

The inspiration for the charcoal briquette came from an early twentieth-century camping trip sponsored by industrialist Henry Ford. Each year from 1915 to 1924, Ford, with pals Thomas Edison, tire magnate Harvey Firestone, and naturalist John Burroughs, took to the road in a convoy of six vehicles, taking with them chauffeurs, a chef, a refrigerated kitchen truck, a folding camp table for 20, equipped with a lazy Susan, dining and sleeping tents, and a gasoline stove. The group called themselves the Vagabonds.

In 1919, Ford—who was in the market for timberland to provide hardwood for his Model Ts—invited Michigan real estate agent Edward Kingsford to tag along. Within months of the trip, Kingsford had helped Ford to acquire 313,000 acres of Michigan timberland and to erect a sawmill and a parts plant. Both, however, generated a lot of waste, in the form of stumps, branches, twigs, and sawdust, which the thrifty Ford loathed simply leaving about, profitless, on the ground. To solve the problem, he adopted a process invented by Oregon chemist Orin Stafford, who had devised a means of making biscuit-sized lumps of fuel from sawdust, wood scraps, tar, and cornstarch. The lumps were elegantly dubbed charcoal briquettes.

Edison designed a briquette factory, conveniently located next to the sawmill; and Kingsford ran it, busily turning out 610 pounds of briquettes for every ton of sawdust and scraps. The briquettes weren’t popular: At first, they sold primarily to smokehouses. Then, in the 1930s, Ford began popularizing them, marketing “Picnic Kits,” each containing a handy box of briquettes and a portable grill, suitable for cooking lunch or dinner (“sizzling broiled meats, steaming coffee, toasted sandwiches”) while on motoring trips in a Ford Model T.

Despite Ford’s best efforts, the outdoor barbecue didn’t really take off until the 1950s, with the invention of lawns, suburbia, and the Weber grill. The Weber was the brainstorm of George Stephen, a welder, who spent his days at the Weber Brother Metal Works near Chicago, assembling sheetmetal spheres into buoys for the U.S. Coast Guard. At some point, he got the idea of slicing a sphere in half and giving it legs, creating a kettle-shaped grill that both kept the ash out of cooking food and allowed for far better heat control than the current store-bought grill models. It was such a hit that Kingsford immediately boosted briquette production by 35 percent.

For wannabe backyard fire-starters these days, most cooks recommend ditching the lighter fluid—it can give food an off-putting chemical taste—and using instead a chimney starter, an inexpensive metal cylinder that you stuff with newspaper (or potato chips), top with briquettes, and then set alight. Some suggest using hardwood charcoal in place of briquettes, since hardwood charcoal is made of nothing but hardwood (no chemical fillers), burns hotter, and gives food a finer smoky flavor.

Not recommended: the briquette-igniting technique ultimately lit upon by engineer George Goble and colleagues at Indiana’s Purdue University in the 1990s. The engineers enlivened annual faculty picnics by coming up with increasingly faster solutions for lighting the charcoal for the picnic hamburgers. They ultimately ended up with a bucket of liquid oxygen – the stuff of rocket fuel – which, when dumped upon 60 pounds of charcoal and ignited with a single smoldering cigarette, erupted into a gigantic fireball, reaching a temperature of 10,000 degrees F. It ignited the charcoal in three seconds flat. It also vaporized the barbecue grill.

Otzi would have been awed.