Against the Chicago winds. How the modern American barbecue was born

Against the Chicago winds. How the modern American barbecue was born
Against the Chicago winds. How the modern American barbecue was born

But before we talk more about the ball with legs, which the neighbors of its inventor nicknamed Sputnik, we have to look at the barbecue itself.

Sunny afternoon. The charcoal crackles, here and there the fat dripping from the meat or the can in the hand of one of the men huddled in a semi-circle around the grill hisses. The lord of the house holds in his hand the badge of his power, the turning tongs. The ladies sit on lawn chairs and the children have adventures under the rhododendron or trouble the dog, if one belongs to the garden.

It’s a cheesy picture for sure. You must have just projected it in your head and certainly in more saturated colors than reality, in the colors of advertising. And it’s also a stereotypical image – I’m not saying, maybe it’s mainly vegetables that are grilled at your place or she, and not him, takes care of the meat. But, honestly, you deserve to be special. I hope you enjoy it. But where did that image come from and why did it stick in our subconscious?

The modern barbecue was born at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Americans began to move to the cities. They spent their days in factories and offices and needed to balance it: the popularity of outdoor sports, baseball and American football, went camping. And smoke began to rise over the gardens and backyards. Back then, of course, it was mostly not made of charcoal, but made of wood, and the grill was mostly self-made, more like a fireplace surrounded by bricks with a grate on top.

The barbecue is an ingenious answer to a number of problems that the American man had to face.

The panacea grill

The real barbecue craze started after the Second World War, a time of growth and prosperity. At that time, to the classic trivia of beget a son, build a house, plant a tree – all of which they did because they had to – a number of new commandments were added to American men. For example, buy a car, buy a refrigerator… And also: take care of your family. However, it was quite complicated. Sure, you can grab a glove and go throw a baseball with your son under your tree, but what next?

There are things you don’t want to do, like gardening, there are things you won’t be allowed to, like the stove. Don’t forget that the male-breadwinner, female-homemaker family model was still common in America at the time – what would a woman be left with when television and the drug trade were not yet sufficiently developed?

The barbecue is an ingenious answer to a number of problems that the American man had to face. You will spend time with your family as time demands. You will get among the people, as the wife requests. In the meantime, you stay at home. You can easily have a beer with the boys, as your saliva demands. And of course: you will be in charge of it all, as the ego demands, and someone else will clean up the mess. This is what you want, boy.

And the Weber grill, the UFO on the photo stand, was just the thing that had to appear so that this American dream could be dreamed by practically everyone. He was born in 1952 and surprisingly his father was no Mr. Weber.

George Stephen had a head full of ideas and a welder’s license, so he was constantly inventing improvements and gadgets.

Steak with ashes

The father of the Weber grill was Mr. George Stephen, the son of the director and partner of the Weber Brothers steel company. The company, which made everything from hinges to wagons, was located in the suburbs of Chicago, and George was a salesman. At the same time, he had a head full of ideas and a welding license, so he was constantly inventing improvements and gadgets. But none were caught. Neither innovative mailboxes nor fireplace grates.

US Patent and Trademark Office

In contrast to the dollars in the account, Koumák’s children multiplied, eventually he had exactly a dozen of them. And when the sun came up, it was already grilling. But every proper city in the United States has a nickname, and Chicago is the Windy City. Running away from the smoke swirling around the backyard and steaks from the ashes, George once ate too much. Among the goods that Weber Bros. were making, he eyed a steel buoy from a Coast Guard order and grabbed a welder.

The result was a portable grill with a lid, which not only protected the food and the cook from the vagaries of the weather, but also retained the heat and transferred it more evenly to the emerging delicacies. The door at the bottom dealt with sweeping out the ash. And also – you didn’t have to pour out the water after the rain if you didn’t push the grill into the garage.

Over time, the range expanded to include grills of other shapes and concepts, but Sputnik remained the flagship product of the company all the time until today.

Advertising inertia

Friends bought a few pieces, but they didn’t sell it right away. But George bit the bullet, tweaking the design for several years, offering, demonstrating and devoting so much time to his improver that in the mid-1950s his father told him to either trade for a business or make grills.

He took the second option, founded his own company – and suddenly it worked. As early as 1958, he paid off his father’s associates, descendants of the Weber brothers, took over the factory and began building a barbecue empire.

Over time, the range expanded to include gas grills and grills of other shapes and concepts, but Sputnik remained the flagship product of the company all the time until today.

To this day, the grilling industry – which includes not only grill manufacturers but also charcoal manufacturers and, of course, food manufacturers – paints the picture we imagined in the beginning in their advertisements.

Various amateur and professional anthropologists try to explain why men gather around the fire, if there are some prehistoric atavisms, or perhaps more modern manifestations of gender oppression, if men just do dirty or even dangerous work with gas grills – and the world somehow shit. In fact, in America, according to surveys, the number of women with flipping tongs is increasing year by year, maybe even more beer cans, they just haven’t noticed it in the commercials yet.

And the children continue to pull the dog by the tail, and new and new shiny buoys are set off from the Weber factory all over the world, more precisely to 78 countries. When the company was about to go public last year, its value was estimated at almost four billion dollars after record pandemic profits – 1.5 billion for 2020.

Did you like it? This gem was also published in the summer printed edition of Finmag. And even if the new issue is already on the stands, don’t give up on this one, our bi-monthly magazine just doesn’t get old! You can still think, for example, about how the digital era is witnessing freelancers, about the highest-ranking female banker in the Czech Republic, or about the brilliance and misery of Cuba.

Where now? From the summer issue of Finmag:

The article is in Czech

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