Red, White & BBQ
GDA Staff -- Casual Living, July 2, 2011
This year's Fourth of July marks the 235th birthday of the United States of America. During that history, America has developed its own cultural legacy in which certain conventions and customs are now viewed as distinctively American.
Like jazz and blues are credited with forming the cornerstone of the country's musical tradition, and like baseball is affectionately referred to as the "national pastime," barbecue claims the title of "America's culinary heritage" like no other food category can.
History backs up that claim.
From the time Thomas Jefferson wrote about it in his diaries, barbecue has been a White House tradition. Lyndon B. Johnson hosted the first barbecue at the White House (featuring Texas-style barbecued ribs). Jimmy Carter hosted a "pig pickin" for roughly 500 att endees. George H. Bush held annual barbecues on the South Lawn for Congressional Members, a practice that was continued by his son, George W. Bush. Barbecue even infl uenced the political process as early as the Lincoln years when candidates used it as an incentive to att ract listeners to their speeches.
And since America's earliest days, barbecue grilling has evolved into more than just an alternative way to prepare food. Barbecue is now a lifestyle that enhances social experiences by bringing together family and friends for conversation and camaraderie.
"America has taken the basics of barbecue and has really elevated it into a science, a culture and a way of life," said Bruce Bjorkman, director of sales and marketing, MAK Grills. "So much of us have grown up in that culture and just carried it onward."
Moreover, barbecue transcends social class. Whether it's fi let mignon or hot dogs, smoky aromas emanate from many an American backyard on nearly all traditional summer holidays (and beyond). It is barbecue's non-discriminatory nature that has allowed it to become ingrained in the culinary conscience of America.
"Barbecue in America is a pastime," said Marc Zemel, CEO and president, Mr. Bar- B-Q. "Grilling is associated with sports; it's associated with birthdays, Father's Day, Mother's Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and even Thanksgiving - that means it's something special to the American people. And to be a griller, you don't have to be poor or rich."
"Not only is it America's culinary pastime, but it's uniquely American as well," said Big Green Egg President Ardy Arani. "When you travel around the world, you hear references to barbecue - slowcooked ribs or hamburgers or hot dogs. Certainly, you'd be hard-pressed to think of an American holiday that doesn't involve gett ing the family out and grilling something."
Women are grabbing a bigger piece of the grilling action as well, according to Mike Kempster Sr., executive vice president and CMO of Weber- Stephens Products. Weber's research surveys "show more and more women are enjoying becoming grilling experts, and that doesn't preclude the fact that their spouse is out there grilling, too. It's really an activity that both spouses can enjoy," he said.
The evolution of barbecue grills themselves shouldn't go without credit for uniting what is certainly a melting-pot industry. In the early 1950s, George Stephens conceived the prototype for the Weber grill before Modern Home Products, in the early '60s, claims to have been the fi rst manufacturer of gas grills. The proliferation of charcoal and gas grills ensued, and today, pellet grills and infrared cooking units have become backyard fixtures.
"All these things chain-link together to inspire people and get them enamored with barbecue grilling and smoking," Bjorkman said. "It's almost an unquenchable thirst."
It is barbecue's non-discriminatory nature that has allowed it to become ingrained in the culinary conscience of America.
Chef Ashley Minton leads Housewarmings’ Big Green Egg grilling classes, preparing dishes that are a step up from the basic, but still easy enough for participants to attempt on their own.
Weber in 1952: Original Kettle
Braising the storm
Many industries have shrunk under the economic tumult of the Great Recession, but the barbecue business has proven resilient. So much so, in fact, that some companies have experienced growth in a time that has proven fi nancially trying for most other industries.
"One really good example of barbecue being a deep part of our culture is that the business has been prett y good through the recession," said Frank Mello, vice president of sales and marketing, Bull Outdoor Products. "No matt er how down Americans got, they still wanted to hang out with their families."
For Mr. Bar-B-Q, sales and sell-throughs have gone up 6-7% a year over each of the last three years, according to Zemel. He att ributes that growth to Americans not traveling as frequently as they have in the past, opting instead to entertain at home to avoid the expense of dining out or daylong road trips.
Savvier retailers who anticipated the stay-at-home trend profi ted, venturing into the barbecue category for the fi rst time in hopes of replenishing disappearing margins in other categories. "I think some retailers said, ‘You know what - this category is dying, so I'm going over (to barbecues),' and they've been successful with it," Mello said.
Mello added that the vendors who are weathering the economic storm and still building grills, making islands and developing accessories don't just sell the product - they sell the lifestyle, the culture and the social experience. If the current health of the industry is an indicator (and it is), American consumers respond positively to that sales pitch.
Weber in 1966: The Wishing Well
Weber in 1973: Electric Kettle
Grill it to win it
Competition has always propelled the American way of life - be it the capitalist economy, the dog-eat-dog business world or the win-or-else sports culture - so it's no surprise that competitive barbecuing has become a national phenomenon.
The Kansas City Barbeque Society is one of the country's main sanctioning bodies for barbecue competitions. Claiming more than 14,000 members worldwide, the nonprofit organization sanctions more than 300 contests in the United States every year.
"Almost every single weekend of the year, someone has a contest," Bjorkman said. "And that doesn't include state or regional barbecue associations. So it's not out-of-line to say that on any given weekend there's probably 20-plus barbecue competitions held around the United States - and that number might be low."
And unlike the dessert competition at the annual county fair, there's more than a blue ribbon at stake. With the KCBS, $5,000- to $10,000- brand championships are the norm, and several competitions eclipse the $25,000 mark in total prize money awarded. Certified Barbeque Judges decide where that money goes, but only after they attend a KCBS-certified class that schools them on the finer points of grading chicken, pork, ribs and brisket.
Money and notoriety are definite motivators, but Arani says competitive barbecuing has swept the country because of the camaraderie. "Some of these events are drawing tens of thousands of people. In many respects, (competitive barbecuing) becomes a community festival."
And this phenomenon is still growing. At Housewarmings in Lexington, Ky., Store Manager Faye Schimke organizes Big Green Egg grilling classes because she found many Egg owners had questions about the grill, whether it was how to properly start it or how to properly use the accessories.
Chef Ashley Minton conducts the classes, leading off with a basic introduction of how to start the Egg before using specific menus to demonstrate the proper use of its accessories. "This has been a great way to educate our customers on the Egg accessories, and it also allows us to sell these accessories as well as the spices, sauces and rubs that we have available," said Schimke.
Novice or grillmaster, black or white, man or woman, East Coast or West Coast - the "unquenchable thirst" that Bjorkman mentioned knows no boundaries in America. Embraced not just for its flavor, Americans connect with the story of barbecue because it's part of their own. Barbecue couldn't be any more American than it is.
Weber in 1985: Genesis
Weber in 1990: The Performer
Weber in 2010: One-Touch Platinum