By Tony Hooker
Roughly two million years ago, some poor Homo Erectus slub probably got an earful from their Homo Erectus partner for accidentally dropping an antelope leg into the family fire…until they tried it and figured out how awesome cooked meat tasted.
Thus started our ancestors’ fascination with cooking over open flames and with smoke. For early hominids, there is evidence that control of fire, along with using it for cooking, led to an enlargement of their brains, doubling in size in around 600,000 years, according to National Geographic.
Fast forward to today, and grilling and smoking foods has nearly eclipsed baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet as symbols of life in America. Why is America so fascinated with using fire and smoke to cook? To find answers, I went to a few experts for their opinions.
Ted Powers is a professor of Psychology at Parkland College, and he sees a connection between our ancestors and the people who love to barbecue today.
“I think the connection to primitive humans may be quite straightforward. Since our sensory systems haven’t changed that much since the time of the Neanderthals, food that tasted darn good to many people back then should still taste darn good to many people today,” Powers said.
Craig Long, who graduated from VGHS in 1981, is hosting his ninth annual Rib smoke off this weekend at his new home near Tipler, Wisconsin, and he expects to have nearly 100 people in attendance, including several people who will be making the seven-hour sojourn from right here in the river city to put their best smokey bones forward. Craig was quick to point to the social aspects of the event as one possible reason. “I think it’s the camaraderie more than anything,” Long stated.
Powers concurred that the social side of it might play a part in the surging popularity of grilling, smoking and barbequing. “I think another important factor is the pandemic. Most of us were eating at home and ended up trying to fix our favorite foods for ourselves. I would guess that would include smoking meats for some people. And when they were successful, I wouldn’t be surprised if they shared that success on social media,” Powers theorized. “So, here’s my scenario: Bob (a regular guy) likes smoked meat like his ancestors. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic he is not able to eat smoked meat. He then sees on social media that Billy bought a smoker and is enjoying smoked meat. Bob thinks, “If Billy can do it, I can do it.” Bob orders a smoker online and it is safely delivered to his door. Bob learns he can smoke meats. Not only does this allow him to eat food that he has missed eating, but it gives him pride (he can do that!). So, Bob shares his success on social media and Martha, Nate and Darnell see his post. And they think, “Hey, I can do that!” And from there it snowballs into the trend we have today”.
And what a snowball it has been. According to statistica, sales of barbeque grills have grown from 5.1 billion dollars in 2019 to an estimated 6.43 billion this year, and they project the trend to continue, with an estimated 8.1 billion in sales expected by 2023.
Another thing that could be fueling the growth is the emergence of pellet grills. These machines, derisively referred to as “easy bake ovens” by smoking traditionalists, have brought the world of smoking foods to an entirely new population, one that doesn’t have the time to closely monitor a cooking process that can last longer than 12 hours. (Truthfully, I’ve got a rack of Beef Ribs on my Pit Boss, as I’m writing) For Craig, using a pellet grill takes away some of the allure. “I sound like an old timer, but everyone’s in a hurry these days. To me, the best part is monitoring it and creating the smoke and the meat. When you put your time into it with wood charcoal, it takes a lot of time and skill,” Long exclaimed.
For me, the proof is in the pudding. (though I’ve not yet tried smoking pudding!) To quote Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods, “If it tastes good, eat it.” So, smoke on, folks. May your smoke rings be beautiful and your dry rubs filled with flavor…and please don’t forget that I’m always available to dispose of any leftovers!