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All About Food: Grill or barbecue? Coal, gas or briquettes?

June 10, 2013|By Terry Markowitz
  • Ben Rios flips burgers on the grill for a barbecue lunch in 2011.
Ben Rios flips burgers on the grill for a barbecue lunch… (TIM BERGER, Los…)

'Tis the season for barbecues. With Father's Day and Fourth of July on our doorstep, thoughts turn to the thrill of the grill.

Barbecuing may be America's oldest competitive outdoor sport. The battles are endless. Since that first day when lightning struck a woolly mammoth and men in animal mini-skirts grunted their appreciation of the superior taste of the meat, to the dry-rubbed, pecan-smoked, indirectly heated pork butt, cooked by the all-American male dressed demurely in a printed apron, stylish hat and long gloves, men have debated the nature of "true" barbecue.

The history of barbecue in the United States traces its roots to pioneer days and poverty. Smoking was a way of cooking meat that preserved it, and slow cooking tenderized it for early settlers, who didn't have dentists.

The origin of the word "barbecue" has long been debated. The two most popular theories are (a) it derives from the French for "whiskers to tail" (barbe a queue) or (b) it comes from the Indian word for " meat smoking apparatus" (barbacoa).

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Americans spend more than $400 million a year on charcoal briquettes. It has often been said that the inventor of the briquette was none other than Henry Ford, using wood scraps left over from the manufacture of wooden automobile parts, and that his friend Thomas Edison designed the factory that produced them.

However, Robert Wolke, in his book "What Einstein Told His Cook," states that this is legend. The actual inventor and the man who patented the process was Orin F. Stafford, a professor at the University of Oregon. Ford then jumped in and built the factory to manufacture them on a large scale.

Today, the debate rages over which are better, briquettes or lumps of hardwood. Briquettes have been the favorite fuel of the multitudes because they are uniform and burn evenly, but they contain additives and create more ash when they burn.

Lump coal can burn hotter and it comes in a variety of different woods that lend a pleasant residue of flavor to the food. However, the lump coal varies in size and doesn't always char evenly.

Of course, there is another school altogether that swears by gas. Almost 70% of Americans own gas grills. Even Iron Chef Bobby Flay says, "Gas is easier to light, control and clean," but he also says in his book "Boy Gets Grill": "Charcoal is a lot more work but gives food a smokiness that gas can never quite imitate."

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