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Man wearing a tie and apron barbecuing steaks on an outdoor grill.
Man of the house barbecues steaks, 1942. Photographer Russell Lee, Prints and Photographs Division.

Beyond Father’s Day: The Story of the Backyard Barbecue

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Marking Father’s Day with a cookout is as American as apple pie. As I was thinking about how to organize this most traditional of celebrations for Sunday, June 18th this year, I wondered about the custom itself.  What’s the history of grilling, and of the backyard barbecue? When and why did “the man of the house”, as pictured above, become a grill master? If working at the Library of Congress teaches you anything, it’s “when in doubt, turn to the collections”. Sure enough, I found some fascinating answers to my cookout questions!

The worldwide phenomenon of cooking food over a fire started with our prehistoric ancestors. The word “barbecue” derives from “barbacoa”; the wooden grill used by the Taino people of the Caribbean to cook meat over a fire. The 16th century Spaniard Gonzalez Fernando de Orviedo first wrote about this practice in his General History of the Indies (1535). Barbecue in the United States dates from before colonial times and has developed strong regional differences in its long history.  Inventions like the charcoal briquet—credit goes to Henry Ford, and his relative Edward Kingsford— and the Weber kettle grill—cleverly adapted from a nautical buoy by company employee George Stephens—helped barbecue become a backyard mainstay in the 1950s.

1953 ad for Kingsford charcoal briquets, showing a man in a gas mask standing over a smoking fire.
Detail from a 1953 newspaper ad for Kingsford charcoal briquets.

These details and much more are part of “Man, Food, and Fire: The Evolution of Barbecue”. This 2012 presentation by acclaimed barbecue guru and food writer Steven Raichlen is full of fascinating material and well worth watching. Raichlen provides a comprehensive history of grilled food traditions worldwide and discusses how barbecuing became a national pastime in American homes.


6:14: Presentation begins

6:40 – 7:44: Passions and regional differences around barbecue in the United States.

8:10: Barbecue traditions worldwide.

10:15: How grilling began in prehistoric societies.

15:10 – 19:57: The start of communal cooking and eating; how humans learned to make fire.

21:20: “Barbecue as religion” in ancient times.

24:53 – 30:10: European observation of barbecue in the Americas, including the first description of Taino barbacoa and other foodstuffs; European use of barbecue images as propaganda; barbecue’s connection to buccaneers.

30:13 – 34:11: Barbecue in American history; links to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; African American employment in barbecue after Emancipation; the rise of barbecue joints.

34:15 – 36:11: How barbecuing became a domestic pastime; Henry Ford and charcoal briquets; the suburban backyard effect; the first mass-marketed kettle grill.

36:16 – 48:04: Barbecue dishes and techniques from around the world.

Cuts of meat cooking over a large indoor grill at a barbecue restaurant.
Barbecue at the Salt Lick BBQ restaurant, Dripping Springs, Texas, 2014. Photographer Carol Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division.

Other Library resources fleshed out the information in Raichlen’s talk. I discovered that barbecues were a regular feature of political life in the early United States. In 1793, Washington D.C. celebrated the laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol Building with a cookout.  A newspaper search turned up much more. In 1794, one paper reported a Georgia barbecue at which only “real friends” of revolutionary France were welcome. A 1797 column addressed to “Mr. Printer” laments attempts to prevent holding cookouts in return for votes. One supporter held a barbecue in 1802 to celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s electoral prospects. Independence Day barbecues were a frequent occurrence, as these columns from 1803 and 1808 show.

Moving from the political to the domestic cookout, I looked at papers from to the 1950’s and 1960’s when home grilling and outdoor entertaining were really taking off. There were some skeptical views, but most articles emphasized the popularity of barbecues. Food writer Clementine Paddleford claimed that “blue sky cooking has hit a sizzling new high”, and credited this to increased leisure time, greater prosperity, and suburbia.  This piece and others made clear that for many, the backyard cookout was definitely a male domain. There are a lot of eye-poppingly sexist attitudes, such as those in this tongue-in-cheek piece on “Mr. Cookout” that attributes soaring grilling equipment sales and the cookout craze to “women’s wiles and men’s gullibility”. Mr. Cookout’s asbestos gloves raise 21st century eyebrows too! Clementine Paddleford was even more insistent here, stating “Barbecue is fast becoming a national sport – one for men only!” Her description of the winning recipe of a national barbecue competition does sound pretty good, even if the overall tone of the article is harder to swallow. There’s more about that annual “Cookout Championship (for men only)” in this promotion, outlining how top contestants “(and wives)” will head to Hawaii for a cookoff. The official rules make clear the contestants must be male, although female judges (including Paddleford) were allowed.

Judges sampling entries in the Americas Cookout Championship, 1963.
Judges sampling entries in the Americas Cookout Championship, 1963. Clementine Paddleford is on the right.

My research also turned up lots of recipes. Here are a few suggestions for your Father’s Day menu this year:

  • Every cookout needs a good barbecue sauce! There are recipes here, and here, along with a description of cooking meat in a barbecue pit.
  • One article features actress Joan Crawford’s potato salad. If you’re feeding a crowd, take a look at this recipe, which uses 15 pounds of potatoes.
  • There’s another potato salad recipe here, and ones for baked beans, brownies and chocolate chip cookies too, along with some time-saving party prep advice.
  • See this 1961 article for how to tweak corn muffin mix.
  • Stuffed squash and an eggplant dip feature in a piece about a homesick Jordanian student recreating his mother’s recipes.
  • Clementine Paddleford has many ideas for “barbecues around the clock”, such as grilled breakfast grapefruit, and menu suggestions for “Barbecue Brunch”, a “Dad’s Day Cookout” and for the beach bound, an “Old Fashioned Ring Bake”.
Three men adding barbecue sauce to large cuts of meat.
Keith Thomas and Lonny Hill applying barbecue sauce, 1978. Photographer Carl Fleischhauer. From the Paradise Valley Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center.

Obviously, there’s far more to barbecue than I was able to include here, and the home cookout has always been much more diverse than the photo at the top of the post implies.  As Steven Raichlen’s talk explains, barbecue has deep international roots. Grilled food has always been adopted and adapted by people of all backgrounds to fit their tastes and culture, even if American newspapers of several decades ago claimed the cookout as the territory of the tie-wearing, apron-clad suburban dad. Barbecue is very definitely for everyone.

If you host a cookout for Father’s Day, or at any time this summer, we hope that you enjoy some of the recipes from the collections. At the same time, you can dazzle your guests with some fascinating facts and figures about the history of barbecue, courtesy of the Library of Congress!



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