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Fire up the Barbeque

According to Texas Singer-Songwriter Robert Earl Keen and Melanie Grand of Misouri State University, Barbeque Makes Everybody Someone. Mike Smith Has This Report:

Barbecues provide glimpse into America's culinary, social past

SPRINGFIELD — This Fourth of July, many Americans ... an impressive 74 percent, according to a 2005 survey by the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association ... will take time out between rounds of bottle rockets and Black Cats to fire up their barbecue grills.

Although humans have been cooking meat outdoors for ages, the barbecue in modern form appeared more recently — within the last century, says Melanie Grand, food historian and assistant professor of hospitality and restaurant management at Missouri State University.

"Real barbecues as we know them actually started in the mid-1950s, after WWII," Grand says. "As the American middle class moved into the suburbs, the thing to have was a built-in barbecue grill. Now we have a return of this with the new outdoor kitchens — less linked to the caveman but more in tune with the cowboy era, where real men gathered around the campfire."

In post-war America, backyard grilling became synonymous with masculinity and social status, Grand says — a tasty method of keeping up with those pesky Joneses down the street.

"It was a sign of wealth, to be able to dry cook the most luxurious cuts of meat ... mostly from the loin, where there is the minimum movement from the animal," Grand says. "Stove-cooked meats were less expensive, tougher pieces of meat."

But the growing popularity of barbecuing over the last century may have had as much to do with safety as it did with status.

"One of the reasons that grilled meat appeals to humans is the fact that the smoke is an actual preservative," Grand says. "Since wood smoke is made up of over 200 compounds, including some toxic ones, it inhibits the growth of microbes. To our ancestors, that smoky taste equaled safe food, as you were less likely to get sick from eating it."

Still, 'that smoky taste' doesn't automatically mean a piece of meat is safe to eat.

"The number one mistake that back-yard grillers make is using the same platter to put the cooked meat on that carried the raw meat," Grand says. "This isn't so much a problem with beef steaks, but it is a serious concern with raw chicken or shrimp. Unfortunately, the most prevalent bacteria associated with this practice have symptoms that often don't show up until five days later and few people make the connection of the illness to its source."

Modern-day barbecues are more about fun and community than anything else, but the historical significance of the grill remains.

"Barbecuing is a way to demonstrate that we are still one of the wealthiest nations in the world," Grand says. "It is a great social outlet for Americans."