A Brief History of the American Cookout

The tradition of cooking meat and other food over a fire in the backyard seems distinctly American. After all, it seems like every generation most of us can recall has been taking part in this unique pastime, particularly on summer holidays like the Fourth of July. But the roots of the modern-day cookout can be traced much further back. 

Cooking Over Fire – Just How Long Have We Been Doing It?

Humans have been cooking food since their discovery of fire, which would take us as far back as the Paleolithic era. Of course, there weren’t any fancy sauces or rubs in those times. No one had access to a Big Green Egg or Blackstone Grill. But, according to Dr. Richard Wrangham, Harvard University professor of biological anthropology and the author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, cooking food transformed the course of human development. 

According to Dr. Wrangham, cooking not only gave humans better food and nutrition. It also helped our brains and bodies develop, making us truly human. Some of this might have taken place in what is now North America. But what about the more recent version of the cookout in this country? Interestingly, the cookout has been here for hundreds of years. 

The Roots of the American Cookout

One of the first explorers to reach America in the late 1400s, Christopher Columbus, did so by way of the Caribbean. While there, the explorers came across indigenous tribes who used wooden frames to slow-cook food. The explorers brought the new cooking technique, which they called “barbacoa,” to the new world with them. The term eventually morphed into “barbecue” as it spread across the southern U.S. 

Of course, grilling and barbecue aren’t quite the same things. But cooking meat and other food over fire is something that has strong roots in this country. Jim Auchmutey, the author of Smokelore, notes that American militia began organizing group barbecues as far back as the Revolutionary War. 

Cooking over flames as a group activity in the U.S. became a way for people to gather and celebrate unified values. And this is one of the reasons cookouts became a traditional way to celebrate our country’s independence or Memorial Day. 

The Modern-Day American Cookout

As you can already see, cookouts in America have been closely linked to politics and war. In the 1800s, some politicians used these events to get close to potential voters by offering them free cooked meat and booze. Ronald Reagan hosted a massive Fourth of July cookout on the White House lawn for three years running. Even today, the Polk County Steak Fry, which is a giant cookout, is the largest organizing event for Iowa Democrats. 

After World War II, there was a massive migration of families from the cities to the suburbs that coincided with a period of economic prosperity. Many families build outdoor brick fireplaces, and gathering with neighbors became a priority in many communities. 

As an option to host as many people as possible in warm weather months, the popularity of backyard cookouts skyrocketed. Interestingly, the iconic Weber grill made its debut in 1951, just in time for the backyard barbecue boom. Major brands like Better Homes & Garden started publishing cookbooks for backyard grilling. And even I Love Lucy aired an episode that featured the characters building a backyard BBQ

Finally, more and more Americans began traveling for leisure to other areas of the country or outside our borders. When they returned home, many were eager to re-create some of the cuisine and culture they encountered in other places. This gave rise to the popularity of things like grilling shrimp, smoking spare ribs, creating beef teriyaki skewers, and backyard tiki bars. 

Let Nick’s of Calvert Help You Have an Amazing Cookout

Now that you know the history of the American cookout, you’re probably getting pretty hungry and thinking about when you can schedule your next barbeque. Nick’s of Calvert can help make your grilling experience an overwhelming success. As your hometown grocer, we offer a full-service meat counter, which is the centerpiece of our store. 

Nick’s is proud to deliver the freshest meats at the most affordable prices in the area. We offer only the highest-quality beef, pork, chicken, and seafood. And our store also offers catering, prepared foods, a line of signature products, and one of the largest varieties of beer, wine, and spirits in Southern Maryland. Contact us or visit our store today to get the assistance you need to make your next cookout a success. 

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