Ford, Edison…and Charcoal?

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Kevin tailgating at a Bills football game

Over the years, I had some terrific conversations with my friend Kevin while standing over a grill. Prepping meals outside in all sorts of weather, we covered a lot of ground—cooking (of course), sports, politics, family, and more than our share of random questions (“is there a reason that beagles howl?”). One day we tackled the most sensitive topic of all: charcoal (well, we covered religion, too, but that’s for another blog).

Kevin was a barbecue guru of the highest order, so I knew he’d have an answer when I asked him “so what exactly is charcoal?” Without looking up from the grill, he explained that charcoal is made by “eliminating all moisture in wood, by basically super-heating it in an oxygen-free environment.” He didn’t say how, and I didn’t ask, but I’m guessing it had something to do with an old co-worker of mine that could suck the oxygen out of any room.

“Charcoal dates back like a zillion years,” he went on, “but Henry Ford had a hand in making the modern stuff.” It was the kind of thing that not many folks would know–which made Kevin great fun to grill with, but also made him incredibly annoying while watching Jeopardy. From there we went on to other more pressing topics, like who had eaten the last of the Funyons.

It turns out that modern day charcoal briquettes were indeed inspired by Henry Ford. In 1919, Ford and his cousin E.G. Kingsford took a road trip to the woodlands of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with a group that included Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone (apparently Ford, one of the greatest industrialists in recorded history, didn’t trust himself to fix a headlight or change a flat).

As I picture their trip, an image comes to mind of four guys in a Model T with the top down and hauling a keg. But they were actually on a serious business venture to figure out how to use the waste wood scraps that were being generated by Ford’s factories. That image doesn’t sound as exciting–but Edison didn’t invent the beer can hat until 1930, so perhaps it’s just as well.

The light bulb apparently went off while they were on that trip, though, and today more than a million tons of wood scraps are made into charcoal briquettes every year in the US alone. For a time during the Depression, Ford dealerships actually sold “Picnic Kits” containing charcoal and portable grills, and the most popular bumper sticker of the era was “this car has two grills” (ok, so I made up the part about the bumper sticker).

So, now that the history is complete, click here for a few charcoal tips adapted for backcountry or camping use–from Kevin, from a few other friends, and from my own experience.

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Each time I cook with charcoal I am reminded of Kevin, who sadly passed away a few years back. Our conversations over the grill are a great memory, though, as he’d always have a clever response and some new insight. And whenever I would share a crazy outdoor cooking idea, he’d laugh–and then he’d help me do it. We never did get around to roasting that pig, but some day I’ll do that (and I won’t use match-light).

Oh, and as for that question about why beagles howl, Kevin responded matter-of-factly that “there is definitely a reason that they howl, but it only makes sense to other beagles.” As we stood outside in the rain and cooked under a single umbrella, that made perfect sense to me.

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