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Henry Ford and the Great American Barbecue

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Henry Ford was a famously frugal man; he hated wasting anything. Each Model T that came off the production line used about 100 board feet of wood for such things as wheel spokes, frame, floors, and steering wheels. Inevitably, there was a fair amount of waste wood and Ford turned his ever-inventive brain to finding a way of making money out of saw dust and shavings.

Ford Buys a Forest

In the summer of 1919, Henry Ford invited the husband of his cousin, real estate agent Edward Kingsford, to join him on a camping trip.

This was no ordinary roughing-it-in-the-woods outing. Included in the party that cheekily called itself the Vagabonds, were Harvey Firestone of tire fame, naturalist John Burroughs, and inventor Thomas Edison.

To look after the creature comforts of these rugged outdoors men were a chef, a kitchen truck, and six cars loaded with supplies.

Ford wanted to pick Kingsford’s brain about available timber land in Michigan’s upper peninsular. The car maker decided he could save money by growing his own timber for his vehicles rather than paying someone else to do it.

The following year, a deal was done and Ford bought more than 300,000 acres of forest at Iron Mountain, Michigan. A sawmill was built and also a nearby plant to turn lumber into car parts. He also built a town, named Kingsford, to house the workers.

Ford's sawmill and parts factory at Iron Mountain, Michigan.

Ford's sawmill and parts factory at Iron Mountain, Michigan.

Turning Waste into Money

You’ve probably noticed that trees don’t naturally grow in a steering-wheel shape. So, turning a maple log into a steering wheel meant a lot of off-cuts fell to the factory floor. A lot of small branches and stumps from the forest added to the waste.

Meanwhile, in the West Coast timber country of Oregon a chemist called Orin Stafford had been looking into commercial uses for sawmill waste. He combined sawdust and ground up shavings and chips with cornstarch and tar that were formed into small nuggets. These were fired in an oxygen-free furnace which drove off the binding agents.

Stafford called the end product “charcoal briquettes.”

Ford called on fellow “camper” Thomas Edison to build a plant in Kingsford to make Stafford’s creation on an industrial scale. Henry didn’t much like the fancy-pants “briquettes” name so he changed it to the more down-to-earth “Ford Briquets.”

Selling Barbecue Culture

Of course, barbecuing has been a method of cooking meat since fire was discovered. In colonial America barbecues were very popular, but usually involved roasting a whole animal turning on a spit over an open flame.

Barbecuing in the modern era and context starts with Henry Ford’s charcoal briquets.

In the beginning, the briquets were sold to meat and fish smokers but they didn’t gobble up enough of the product, so Ford started selling the product through his dealerships.

To help sales, he put together “Picnic Kits.” A portable grill and charcoal briquets were marketed as the way for Ford customers to enjoy the great outdoors.

The advertising copy gushed “Enjoy a modern picnic. Sizzling broiled meats, steaming coffee, toasted sandwiches.”

The Model T and the great outdoors.

The Model T and the great outdoors.

Load up the old Tin Lizzy with the wife, kiddies, and Picnic Kit and head off to some leafy bower in the countryside and char a few steaks.

Meat+Fire=Good.

Henry Ford, it seems, was a bit ahead of his time. The United States ran headlong into the Great Depression so there was little enthusiasm or money for most families to head off into the backwoods to sear a T-bone.

Cooking outdoors in the 1930s was something that happened in Hooverville shantytowns filled will indigent men down on their luck.

Barbecue Boom

It wasn’t until the soldiers, sailors, and airmen came back from the Second World War that the backyard barbecue started to really catch on. Families moved from inner cities to the suburbs so they could have a backyard.

In 1951, Ford sold the charcoal briquet business to a group of investors who named the product Kingsford in honour of Edward Kingsford, the real estate man. This, married to the arrival of the Weber grill, led to mouth-watering scents wafting over American suburbs every summer evening. (Vegans likely won't agree).

Ken Padgett (Agile Writer) notes that “Over 77 percent of all U.S. households own a barbecue grill and nearly half barbecue year round and use their grills five times a month.” And, Forbes Magazine adds that “11 percent of grill owners prepared breakfast [on barbecues] in the past year.”

The popularity is such that The Reader’s Digest was moved to comment “Cooking with charcoal ... is now as deeply ingrained in American life as the long weekend and the servantless kitchen.” Of course, that was before the stainless steel grill running on propane or natural gas pushed charcoal aside.

But, the purists still stick to charcoal as the only proper way to barbecue meat or marshmallows.

Bonus Factoids

  • Despite the popularity of gas-fired barbecues, more than a million tons of waste wood is turned into charcoal briquettes every year in the U.S.
  • The most popular origin of the word barbecue is that it comes from the Taino Indians of the Caribbean. Spanish explorers of the 16th century found these people roasting fish and meat over an open fire in a process they called “barbacoa.”
  • One of Henry Ford’s cars was rigged up as a barbecue. He and his pal Thomas Edison would head off into the countryside while their picnic fare was cooked by the heat of the engine.
  • In 1925, a Model T Ford cost $260 (around $3,600 in today’s money). In 2018, the Sotherby’s auction house sold a pair of Ford Charcoal Briquet Picnic Kits for $480.
  • In 2013, authorities in Beijing began confiscating and destroying outdoor barbecues in an attempt to cut the city’s chronic air pollution.

Sources

  • “Charcoal Briquettes.” Andy Boyd, University of Houston, February 25, 2016.
  • “Who Made That Charcoal Briquette?” Dashka Slater, New York Times, Magazine, September 26, 2014.
  • “Henry Ford.” Barbecue Hall of Fame, undated.
  • “The History of Barbecue.” Ken Padgett, Agilewriter.com, undated.
  • “The United States of Barbecue – America’s Love Affair With Backyard Cooking.” Larry Olmstead, Forbes, April 28, 2016.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on October 08, 2018:

Wesman. Lunch sounds good. What time do you want me to drop by?

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on October 08, 2018:

I had no idea that there was a connection between Henry Ford and briquettes. What an interesting bit of modern history. I will think of it the next time I buy a bag of Kingsford charcoal. Nice article!

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on October 08, 2018:

Trees don't grow in steering wheel shapes? Tha hell you say! I think about this sort of thing constantly, for the simple fact that trees don't grow in guitar shapes either.

Meat plus fire equals very very good goodness! My younger brother runs one of the most well known BBQ restaurants in Texas. And here in Texas, BBQ is a very common thing. Our Hispanic brothers and sisters feel the same way as we do about meat cooked with fire. Oh we have wonderful meals.

I was raised to abhor waste. I shudder at wasted food more than any other form of waste. Well, lunch is warming on the skillet. It'll be a combination of turkey and pork roast, onions, peppers, and tomatoes. I'm going to put it into a tortilla.

Good day to you, Sir.

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